Karl Jaspers - A Self-portrait

Translated from the original German into English by Amara McLaughlin-Harris


In 1968, West German broadcaster NorddeutscherRudfunk released a television documentary entitled Karl Jaspers - EinSelbsportrait (Karl Jaspers - A Self-portrait). This documentary consists of Karl Jaspers (1910-1969) telling his life story by way of a 45-minute series of vignettes. In2008YouTube posted the documentary as originally presented; in 2016 English subtitles were added(Plaetzer 2016).

In 2018I was asked toundertake a German-English translation of the documentary. What follows is the result:

I was born in the city of Oldenburg.  My father comes from the Jeverland and my mother, from Buttjadingen. Both near the North Sea shore.

Every year of our childhood we went to the Frisian Islands and were raised with the sea. I remember—I was three or four years old—that we went to Spiekeroog. And I don’t remember any sea being there at all, only bushes and houses. But a few years later, we were in Norderney and in the evening, my father took my hand and we walked down the vast beach to the sea.

It was low tide. The journey over the fresh, clean beach went on and on and on, the tide was so low. And we came to the water where there lay jellyfish…starfish…I was enchanted.

The first time I set eyes on the sea, I didn’treflect upon it. I did not think“infinity.”  But since then, the sea has become to me something like the self-evident background of life in general. That is to say, the presence of infinity. Infinite waves…no wave the same as the other…everything always in motion, nowhere fixed, and the whole in perfect, infinite solidity of substance.

Ever since, the sight of the sea has been, for me, the most wonderful of all that the natural world offers. Because it is always changing, because always on an infinite scale, the sea is like a mirror of life and philosophizing. All that is fixed and superbly well-ordered—like dwelling, shelter—is indispensable. But it is liberating that there is also this “other”—the infinity of the sea—that brings us to the point where all fixity ceases. Yet we don’t sink into the abyss, rather into the infinite mystery. The infinity of the sea is something that liberates us from that to which we remain bound and delight in—that is, to dwelling and shelter. It goes beyond this. And this “going beyond” is the essence of philosophizing. 

To be able to endure it! That nowhere is there ground and that in this place where there isn’t ground anywhere there is the true ground, beyond everything, where nothing finds a citadel. This is the uncanny singularity of the sea, not to be found elsewhere. And then, of course, before long comes the awareness that, no, that is not life. Rather that is the beyond, the mirror of what we will require if we are to throw off the finitude of our attachments.  This elemental experience is almost barbaric. Near pure elements, my life has been uncommonly precious to me.

The infinity of the sea stands in opposition or distinction to all other experiences of nature.

The next thing, perhaps, is the landscape of my homeland: the marshlands. Absolutely flat. Whenever there is an increase in elevation, say by a meter, one calls it a mountain. Nothing but sky—horizon—and a place where I stand, the sky open on all sides. This landscape is certainly a landscape. It is not the sea, the sea itself but still very close. And it is so familiar to me from my childhood, that to me, next to the sea nothing is dearer than a completely flat landscape.

Later came the experience of the highlands.  I discovered these early, at about six, in Harz. Romantic, pleasant, strange, but interesting. And later on, the high mountains—the Alps.  It remains unforgettable to me, how the first time I was in Engadine and experienced the magnificence of this noble landscape, the landscape of Nietzsche, I at once had the feeling—hideous! These mountains, they hide the horizon from me! Away with the mountains! The mountains are an interruption of the world… I exaggerate, but this feeling ran through me: the mountains take my horizon away.  Since my childhood it has been so.

But now, another thing: I was safe with my parents. I cannot say much regarding my parents.  My father was, unconsciously and inadvertently, a role model.  A role model because of his attitudes.  In particular, without church, without recourse to an objective authority, untruthfulness was regarded as most evil—lies. And next, nearly as bad: blind obedience. Neither were ever permitted.  That is why my father was infinitely patient in justifying everything he demanded of me. When I talked back, I was not met with an order, but rather an explanation of why this would be reasonable.  

My father lived a life of originality. Local chief officer, then bank director…the dutifulness a public servant who desired nothing more than freedom.  Consequently, he resigned from his office because he couldn’t tolerate bosses.  And then life became effectively about hunting, that is, with nature. And painting…painted many watercolors. This life bore constant witness, so to say…for the children, to the fact that it does not all come down to the performance of one’s duty. That is very important, absolutely necessary, obviously. But life must have a background. No words were uttered about this, but it was put into action. And we children shared in that life, with the watercolor painting, with stories of the hunt.

And my mother, in contrast to my father’s calm, was tremendously spirited, invincible in her love, always optimistic for her children.  I, being sick most of the time, was in actual fact not sick at all! Everything was always great!

To grow up with these parents, naturally, completely unwittingly, engendered a feeling of safety in us and a certainty that there was protection. And there was, through more than mere protection—through love—a certainty such that whatever unpleasant things should come later, this starting point was inalienable. When they began, however, I noticed,and my father told me, where the bounds of his power lay, beyond which he could no longer help me. That was a hugely decisive moment for me, and even moresobecause my father was truthful and because I saw that a person cannot do everything. 

I will tell you: this matter began in school. In school I had several excellent teachers—Ahmann Richter, who I think back on with immense gratitude. But I had a principal who couldn’t stand me. Understandably! I must tell you this. One day, I came into conflict with the physical education teacher. I had a medical note saying I should not do certain exercises or take off my jacket. And the teacher thought that was nonsense anddemanded obedience. And I was not obedient and didn’t do it. The next day, disaster ensued. I had broken the rules and the principal went as far as saying“either you go”—I was in secondary school—“either you go to Mr. So-and-so and apologize, or you will be expelled from school.” That I might be expelled from school was unthinkable for me because I had to stay with my parents. How could this possibly be settled? 

The principal was relentless. My father said to me:

“You must decide for yourself. All I can promise you is that if the principal wants to expel you, I’ll go all the way to the Ministry in support of you remaining. But, I suspect that the Ministry never reverses an order made by a principal. You must decide for yourself if you want to take the risk.” 

And then a teacher came to me, my teacher who I already mentioned—Richter. And he said to me:

“Listen, Jaspers, I must speak with you a moment. Of course, you’re right, and the principal isn’t. But think about it. If you assert your right, it will be a shock to the whole disciplinary structure of the school. Do you want to threaten school discipline in order to vindicate your right? Perhaps you could think about whether it might not be worthwhile to yield, because it is not, after all, as important to you as the school’s authority. But I am not advising you, just something to think about.”

Now, that was a great relief to me, insofar as I would now be acting reasonably if I yielded. But giving in in this way seemed appalling to me. I had to find an angle and I found it in the following way: I told the principal what he wanted to hear:

“I will go to the gentleman and, following your order, I will apologize.”—

“Do it how you like but apologize!”

I went to the teacher, this physical education teacher, and everything was very tense at that point, the teacher himself was in an uncomfortable state, he was afraid. And I determined to say the following: “On the principal’s orders I have come to report to you that I apologize.” —A way out.So, I go to this teacher and he greeted me, and I said:

“Mr. so-and-so, on the principals orders I have come to you”—

“Thank you very much! Please take a seat! I am pleased that…”

“Thank you,” I said, bowing my head, and left.

I went to the principal to tell him about it and as I began he said:

“That doesn’t matter to me at all. You have apologized.”

That was just one example. Now comes senior year. The last two years of our Gymnasium there were fraternities. These fraternities were called “Obscura,”“Prima,” and “Saxonia.”These were, in fact, socially stratified groups. Obscura was the noblest, where finance and the high civil service went. Prima ranked second, where the more intellectual people were—teachers, pastors... And Saxonia, which was ranked lowest, contained the children of farmers and tradespersons.  Nobody said it, but it was, in fact, so. And everyone felt it—Obscura is the noblest. And I said: “I’m not joining a fraternity. I don’t want to belong to one.” My saying this was an insult to the principal because he not only allowed the fraternities, he wanted them. And now I was on my own.

Two or three people joined me, for reasons I do not wish to explain, that would stray too far...and the effect was that, in the schoolyard, everyone stood in their respective position. The fraternities had their place, as did we: the fourth group. So, there we were and one day the principal said:

“That’s not an option. You must all be in the same place.”

And he ordered: “you’ll all stand where Obscura is standing.”

This situation got a bit awkward when everyone went to stand where Obscura stood except me. And then I explained:

“This is social stratification, and I’ll have no part in it. I am neutral and non-partisan. Therefore, the place for everyone to come together is my place. They must come to me, not I to them.”

Sadly, everyone went over there. I sat totally alone on the playground and the three fraternities stood together. They built a bridge by sending a committee over. And they said that I would, in the end, be alone there, and had been out-voted. They begged me not to keep attempting the impossible, but to come over and join them. And I did. But the principal was beside himself and hated me. And he hated me so much in the years afterwards that I, though I could see from the way he taught that he was a clever man, I am ever grateful because I learned something: there is hardly a person I’ve had so much contempt for as I had for him. This concerned the great difference between military and school discipline. I was instructed in this by my father and was able to recall it superbly to make clear to the principal that he was introducing military discipline and that we would not respond to that. At that, he became angrier and declared:

“This is the spirit of your family! The spirit of opposition! We must keep a watchful eye on you. And I will have all the other teachers with me.”

Admittedly, I, for my part, was deeply tormented by the principal. Then, in the end, after final exams—and I had had good results—he did me the great honor of asking that I give the speech in Latin at the farewell ceremony, where the grand duke would be in attendance. A great honor. I said:

“No, sir, I won’t be doing that.”

“Oh no?”

“That would deceive the public. We have not learned enough Latin to be able to speak it.” 

So, you see, it went both ways. And this reciprocity reached its peak at the farewell visit. 

Back then, it was customary for the principal and the teachers to make farewell visits after exams. And when I was with the principal, he said to me—one almost wouldn’t believe it:

“Nothing can become of you. You are organically ill.”

That was accurate. I only thought, “How strange!” and did not concern myself further. I had so much courage in my inner life that no matter how things might be, I looked on my future with enthusiasm, regardless of illness.  Still, the phrase is unforgettable to me.

Now, during this time, my classmates abandoned me. They sided with the principal. Everytime there was disagreement I was the embarrassing one who was on the outs. And in this situation, which lasted two years, the last two years of school, my father helped me. He said to me, “you are unusual, you alone must help yourself,” and he made me co-tenant along with three other lawyers and himself, of a large hunting ground south of Oldenburg. About five square kilometers—a splendid hunting ground. And I had all the rights of a co-tenant. I could walk across every scrap of ground, every garden, and live in this landscape for two years.  So, I grew familiar with it, and I grew familiar with the farmers. This was an enormous help to me, this life! 

But, as wonderful as the grounds were, at that time there was also a moor. Today it is cultivated. Infinity at the edge of the cultivated land, this moor was like the sea. On and on one could see nothing else. It’s not there today. Then there was the Hunte River landscape—exceptionally diverse. Beautiful woodlands…beech tree forests, pine tree forests—unforgettable to me. But the hunt? I was already sick, without knowing it. To hold the gun tight while aiming was already beyond my strength and it would always shake. And one day, I found myself in the forest, all alone. And I cried and thought, “I can’t do it.”  But I didn’t know how or why.  

In other words, at that time, I became aware of my physical limitations—my illness.  When I was 18-years-old, the family doctor did not take this illness seriously. He always stated that it was influenza—which was how one referred to a cold—when I had a fever and bronchial problems. Then Dr. Fraenkel in Badenweiler, who I visited as a friend of my parents, figured out that I had bronchiectasis. And he confronted me clearly as follows: 

“You do not have tuberculosis. You are not contagious, don’t worry yourself about that. But you have bronchiectasis. It is incurable. You must live with it. And you can live with it in the right conditions. You have an excellent life before you if you want it. And third, this depends on one thing: therapy. So long as we see to it that your lungs remain empty of fluid—you must constantly expectorate—if the fever stops and the illness does not progress, you will have it, but it will stay as it is.”

Everything went as he said it would. And he, my doctor until 1938, friend and doctor—incidentally a man who is renowned in the medical world for having discovered strophanthin therapy—he took me on in the way of a doctor who takes pride in his patients.  And he helped me not merely—occasionally such doctors present themselves—not merely physically, rather he wanted something to become of me. I will give a couple examples. 

When I was at the end of my studies, he established a connection between me and the senior doctor at the psychiatric hospital, Wilmans, arranging that I could use a blood pressure apparatus, built for the first time by Recklinghausen and that he, Fraenkel, already had even though it was not yet on the market, to examine the blood pressure of the mentally ill with Wilman’s help. So, he placed me in the clinic, my doctor, so that I could take part in their research. I was beside myself! It was great!

And another example: In 1921, I got a call to teach in Greifswald. That was impossible. The climate was prohibitive for me. Once I had communicated all this to him in the evening, Fraenkel came at 8 am the next morning—my wife and I were still in bed—and he declared: 

“Now listen, Jaspers, I hope you are clear on the fact that the climate in Greifswald would be excellent for you.”

Further down the line, at the faculty meeting with the respected Dean, Bartholome, they spoke about this and said: 

“Jaspers will not be going to Greifswald. That’s impossible with his illness. He’ll stay here, we don’t need to do anything.”

And Fraenkel said to me:“You must, of course, get tenure! That much is obvious. But one must be clever about it.” 

And then he went on a walk in the streets with Dr. Batholome, who was the Dean and an upstanding man, as cozy as could be, arm in arm, and while they walked they spoke about me. And Fraenkel said I might very well go to Greifswald, the climate wouldn’t harm me.  On this basis, Bartholome declared at the faculty meeting that he had heard from my doctor that I was able to go to Greifswald. With that, the faculty decided to tenure my position. In such ways Dr. Fraenkel intervened in my life, as doctor. It’s unforgettable to me, doctor and friend, broken free from the mold, and always helpful in his wisdom. 

My relationship with the university had a very singular character. When I came to university at the age of 18, I felt as though I was entering hallowed halls. Nothing seemed as magnificent as the university. All truth could be found there. I was lucky to have brilliant professors to see and to hear. And simultaneously, lucky to accept, unreflectively…to know with complete certainty in myself that the university is a great, occidental, international entity, like the Church. I belong to a community that does not bind me to the State and the like. Rather, I belong to a community than wants nothing more than absolute and boundless truth.

I first came to Heidelberg in autumn, 1901.  Then I went, in autumn—or in spring 1901, not in autumn. In 1902, I went to Munich, then to Berlin, then to Goettingen. I stayed in Goettingen for years to work. Goettingen has that peculiar atmosphere in which one is sober, simply active, and where one ought and wants to learn, whereas in Munich, my engagement with the Swabian world was more extensive than with the university. But only for one semester. 

When I studied in Goettingen I thought to myself—I had become a medical student but started as a law student—I thought about what I should be. And then I remembered Heidelberg. And I was aware that I now knew German universities and that the only one that has nobility is Heidelberg. I had experienced one semester and remarkable things had happened, because in Heidelberg all people come together. This is the European atmosphere. You would have people there who, like Max Weber, might not be lecturing but are still present. And others, at such a high level, of such intellectual dimensions, that it goes beyond mere scholarship. There one could find the remarkable people from the world over coming together. This was the time before 1914. You had many Russian revolutionaries there who built a group there, had their own library, and played a significant role due to their superior intellects. There were Americans. There were people from all over the world. One felt oneself to be in Germany and far beyond Germany. 

And this atmosphere is hard to describe. I published about it once…as if one lived one meter above the ground, floating in the air. One had hardly any connection with the general public. There is something in the landscape that demonstrates it. Hoelderlin’s Heidelberg poem speaks to it. It has something to do with humanity, as if here the professors joined together across disciplines, directed to the whole despite their specializations, with remarkably expansive interests, with the remarkable participation of a large quantity of women, of whom the professor’s wives were, naturally, only a small portion, and who played an essential role in this intellectual world. Now, in Goettingen I thought: 

“The noble University—that is Heidelberg. I will go back to Heidelberg.” 

This was 1906. And I stayed in Heidelberg after that, first as a student until I became a professor, until 1938 when I moved to Basel.  

This university consciousness so saturated me, already as student and then as professor, as if this this was fairy tale land established by the State and desired by the State, but independent from the State, supranational, in which one, decently paid, could live modestly. One must not have any great expectations and might achieve much more in the world. But if one accepts this, one is freer than anywhere else. Noone is giving you orders. Directions as to what to do come from oneself. We are responsible to ourselves. With respect to freedom, to range—incomparable. A fairy tale in our time. 

Now, I took this idea seriously. And, as it happened, many of my colleagues did not take it seriously. The overwhelming majority thought primarily in national terms. I want to give you two examples. In the year 1919, I was, after this so-called “revolution,” which was childish like all our other revolutions—so far…hopefully not in the future—there I was, following this revolution, the representative of those who were not full professors in the faculty senate. An order came before the senate from Berlin, signed, I believe by Dean Meinecke, to protest against the conditions for peace, soon to be public, coming out of the Treaty of Versailles negotiations. And I stated in the senate session as an adjunct professor: 

“It seems to me that we do not have to take a position at all because we are a supranational corporation that does not have to trouble itself with State matters. This matter is extraordinarily serious. The question of what we should do if these conditions come down is in each person’s hands. Here you have what Max Weber wants and, I believe, all of us—we are, after all, citizens of the State besides being professors—as citizens, everyone has to consider for themselves what they want. And Max Weber calls for passive resistance and guerilla warfare, the dedication of one’s life to the nation. That’s fair. I personally am not prepared for that because I am not physically capable. I don’t want to decide what I would do otherwise. But any of you who want to protest here and now in writing, which will be quite paltry, will find that the proper way is through action against that which is planned in Versailles. So, I vote that we, as a university, not sign this.”

I was outvoted. All were friendly, but I remained alone. 

A second case. This is the case of Gumbel from 1924. In this case a private lecturer, publicly, in a meeting of war veterans, a thousand people, and to the agreement and enthusiasm of these veterans, said the words:

“These poor people, who fell, I shall not say in war, but on the field of dishonor, still lost their lives in a horrible manner.”

This sentence caused such outrage in the professorate in Heidelberg. All nationalists, all beating their breasts: 

“Such impudence! such an insult to the veterans!”

“I didn’t go to war,” said one colleague in the meeting, “and to listen to such a thing…despite the civic-minded considerations of my colleague, Jaspers, which I acknowledge…”

I had argued that, once again, this matter was none of our concern. But naturally, were there subversive behavior, one would have to examine it. We did examine it. I was on the commission. On my initiative, we questioned quite a number of veterans, all of whom stated that they were not offended by Gumbel’s words. This insult obviously affected the professors more than the veterans. My colleagues—two excellent gentlemen—agreed with me. We came to the conclusion that it would be going way too far to rehash the numerous details and that there was no reason to remove Mr. Gumbel. He had not engaged in misconduct contrary to the spirit of the university and he had a right to his opinion. This report that we co-authored was passed on to the faculty. But naturally, as it often goes, it became known to my colleagues beforehand. And my colleagues by an overwhelming majority, and I think, after the report, all of them, were outraged!

My—I must repeat—highly revered colleagues, objective colleagues, were afraid of this mood. As it is, sadly, so often in Germany, they just want to be like the others. They want to remain united in the corporation, and the weight of that which the colleagues in the majority said grew so great that it became a matter of decency to follow their lead. So, it was with both of my colleagues. And they phoned me up the next day and asked if I would be agreeable to them removing their signatures from the report. It was already signed. To which I replied: 

“Of course! I don’t wish to prevent you. But my report remains and our joint report is now my report and you make a second.”

So, it happened. And it was spoken about for hours in the faculty meeting, with the result that the entire faculty voted against me and I was the only one supporting my report. This was depressing to me…not nice. But I conducted myself according to a totally different principle. I had learned in school, as I have recalled to you, how to stand alone. I am not at all brave. I am no hero. I have never risked my life; I would guard it carefully against risk. Yet, on one point I did learn something in school: prestige, reputation—those don’t impress me. Rather, I stick to the unconventional and speak and act according to that which is clearly evident to me. With respect to the Gumbel case, so many people told me later that I in fact had it right…but by then it was in the past. 

I told you this as an example…as a second example…to show that I placed the idea of the university above all else. The case of Gumbel involved freedom of opinion and speech. If it comes to the point that a professor may be disciplined for his opinion or form of expression then we are all lost.  Then the next day there may well be prosecution for blasphemy because the church feels offended or other such things. I spoke of the freedom of the university at that time and spoke in-depth about what it is: unconditional! Only if a professor violates the criminal law and is legitimately sentenced, then they may be removed disciplinarily. But if the criminal law is not affected, the professor is free to hold any opinion. Back then I defended this position for a second time. 

You see what the idea of the university means to me. This was not stubbornness of opinion, this was not the will to power wishing to ensure that Gumbel stay. What happens to Gumbel is his fate.  Therefore, when the Dean, in the proper way, asked me after I was outvoted if I would like a separate vote to go to the government in Karlsruhe dissenting with the faculty. I answered no, because I knew that Remmele, of the SPD [Social Democratic Party], was Minister and favored Gumbel for party-political reasons, reasons that flew in the face of our idea of freedom. And the SPD had, in any case, proven itself to act like as a party towards us and not in the spirit of maintaining freedom in the university. I did not want to be joined with the acts of such a government, so I forwent my separate vote.

Sometimes I thought: 

“Now, here I sit, representative of the university and the people of the university. I represent the same idea as the others. But, then, how is it actually? Do I represent them, or do the others represent them? On my view, the others are betraying freedom. I am for the idea of the free university. I am, so to say, a bird of a different feather in this community. That is to say, as the representative of the thing itself, the rational idea in opposition to the conventions of one locality, of a community who does not respect it as such. Still, it was a question of numbers and expression would likely not be upheld.” 

And then I arrive at another matter: it is peculiar of my career that I came to be a professor. This is so totally abnormal, that one might say that a friendly angel was playing to my advantage or, conversely, a great trickster angel interfered with the masters of the college, that I might come to rest there.



NiklasPlaetzer.  Karl Jaspers: A Self-Portrait (Full Interview, with English subtitles).Dec 10, 2016. www.youtube.com/watch.


October 4, 2018