The Psychology of Worldviews: Jaspers/Heidegger

The Psychology of Worldviews: Jaspers/Heidegger

 Steven Goldman, Ph.D.


 This essay examines some of the arguments raised in the encounter between two thinkers – Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers – focused on their contrasting ideas about “worldviews” from 1919-1920.  Jaspers’ conception of philosophy as a summons – to oneself and to every other searcher – and Heidegger’s conception of philosophy as a questioning of Being – a question largely forgotten in the history of philosophy – are articulated via the two thinkers’ notes regarding “worldviews” from this early period.  This serves as the platform from which to ask fundamental questions about philosophy and its falling apart into distinct philosophies.  In Socratic terms, philosophy is about examining oneself and trying to escape from ignorance; the encounter between Jaspers and Heidegger uncovers two very different approaches to self-examination and ignorance; I argue that examining this encounter helps to clarify the nature of philosophy and the relationship between philosophy and action.

Main Text

Karl Jaspers’ 1919 work Psychologie Der Weltanschauungen (Psychology of Worldviews) begins with the idea that life confronts human beings with inexorable givens, most particularly the prospect of one’s own death, and argues that human beings win a measure of integrity through honestly facing basic “limit situations,” thinking them through and coming to terms with them.  Jaspers took a new step in philosophy with this self-described “experimental and searching” work, which his younger contemporary Martin Heidegger realized immediately.  Heidegger paid Jaspers’ work the great compliment of attacking it aggressively – as he wrote to his teacher, Heinrich Rickert, just after finishing a lengthy review of Jaspers’ work: “This book must, in my opinion, be fought in the severest possible manner, precisely because it has so much to offer, which Jaspers has learned from everywhere, and because it appropriates an important trace of our times.”  As it happened, Heidegger’s review was accepted for publication by a learned journal in Göttingen, but only on the condition that he make considerable changes.  He never did, and the piece was forgotten.  The review appeared half a century later, in 1973, as part of Heidegger’s literary estate.

Many themes in Heidegger’s 1927 masterwork Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) first appear in his argument with Jaspers – for example, the question of being, forgetfulness, everydayness and falling into inauthenticity, the necessary rethinking and “destruction” of the history of philosophy, and ideas about “self world, “with world” and “environing world” – also the political dispute that these two names call up – and most strikingly these two thinkers’ contrasting ideas about philosophy.  The present essay makes a study of Jaspers’ work, Heidegger’s review and the dispute between them; it concludes by carrying their conversation several steps forward.

1.  Some background on Jaspers

Jaspers was born in North Germany – in Saxony – near the border with the Netherlands.  He grew up and was educated in the political culture of North German liberalism.  He initially studied law – his father was a jurist and advocate for progressive causes – later he settled on medicine.  He completed his studies and spent a decade as a practicing psychiatrist.  He published research on paranoia, delusions and diagnostic criteria; he suggested a number of innovations in treating mental illness and is credited with inaugurating the biographical method in psychiatry (taking extensive background histories and noting how patients themselves feel about their symptoms).

While practicing psychiatry in Heidelberg, Jaspers came into contact with the historian, economist, pioneering student of comparative religion and founder of sociology, Max Weber.

Jaspers considered Weber to be the greatest man of his time – a true exemplar of scientific consciousness, humanitarianism, comprehensive learning and political courage.  Weber threw himself against the tide of religious intolerance in Germany but ultimately was swept under it.

Jaspers was dissatisfied with the way mental illness was understood in his time – especially by the tendency to reduce the patient to a set of influences – and was also struck by the powerful example of personal authenticity set by Weber.  Meanwhile the German political state continued its descent towards totalitarianism.  Jaspers began studying philosophy relatively late in life in an effort to give some frame to his developing ideas about selfhood, society, and more transcendent themes.  He began from a Kantian perspective and wrestled with some effects of the categorical imperative – the idea that what a person does is bound up with a transcendent ideal of action.  Afterwards he rejected what he considered to be Kant’s overintellectualized portrait of man.  Instead he became a close reader of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, whose works bring a new skepticism to the human prospect – also a new challenge – a vision that resists being put into a summary, that cannot be systematized or fully articulated.  Jaspers interpreted these thinkers as guiding spirits of a new, comprehensive life attitude.  They seem to exalt in the anxiety and dizziness of modern freedom.  They direct our attention especially to confronting life in all its complexity and painful absurdity, calling upon strength of character and willpower, personal integrity and genuineness, and the ability to go forward without getting stuck, as modes of authentic being in response to the problematic character of lived experience.

Jaspers defined the new standpoint reached in his 1919 work The Psychology of Worldviews as the “philosophy of existence.”

Following Jaspers, this standpoint was elaborated in many later works.  Martin Heidegger, but also Gabriel Marcel, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Miguel de Unamuno, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir all made significant contributions to the philosophy of existence.  Sartre renamed this philosophy “existentialism” and had great success in popularizing it.

It is significant that this tradition includes figures of the political left (e.g., Sartre), of the right (e.g., Heidegger), atheists (e.g., Camus) and theists (e.g., Unamuno).  Existentialist writers do not appear to share any system of belief or ethic, but instead an orientation to the main problem of existence itself.  The problem of existence is taken subjectively. Existentialist writers do not use the term ‘existence’ to refer to the problem of sheer being, or stark reality – to the problem ‘Why is there anything rather than nothing?’ – but instead restrict the term to the sphere of human reality – thus to the problem ‘Who are we and how can we fulfill our lives?’

Jaspers introduced the term “existence” (which he writes as the substantive “Existenz”) with this connotation – trying to get at how human beings fulfill the brief moment they have to live.  Jaspers is also the source of talk about “the conditions of existence” and about “existential givens” and about “givens of existence” that a person has to think and confront. These include (among others) “freedom,” “meaninglessness,” “isolation” and “death.”  Jaspers’ studies of mental illness made him conclude that most people do not confront these givens.  He makes the claim that most people live in an “inauthentic state.”  He also talks about “limit situations” and “boundary situations” and “limit experiences” that force human reality out of its normal complacency.  Particularly any circumstance that reminds the individual of his or her own mortality brings on the “fear and trembling” and the “sickness unto death” (as Kierkegaard expresses these ideas) – in later times what Sartre calls “nausea” and what Heidegger calls “anxiety.” The state of anxiety brought on by the awareness that one is going to die represents a focus of personal energy unlike any other. In Heidegger’s words from Being and Time: “Anxiety in the face of death is anxiety in the face of the potentiality of being which is one’s ownmost.”

Jaspers regards philosophy as a practice of asking questions – not of answering them – thus an activity and not a set of conclusions.  Jaspers denies that philosophy is bound up with the scientific method.  It does not propose hypotheses, test them, or work towards any intersubjective consensus.  Philosophy is in search of truths whose status is independent of the method of establishing them.  It may even work in ways that are incompatible with one another.  Philosophy confronts absurdity and also creates absurdity but ultimately learns to work with absurdity.

The first step in philosophy is to clear a space in which a new kind of thinking can occur.  The “fundamental step” or “basic philosophic operation” is “thinking beyond” which is also “thinking oneself free.”  Part of the idea here is that every finite object of thought emerges as such an object out of a larger context, which Jaspers calls “the open horizon” or “the encompassing” or  “the transcendent.”  Just as the foreground is framed by the background and the object is framed by the visual field, so every existent is framed by the larger context of Being itself.  To “think beyond” or to “think oneself free” is to think oneself out from the object and into the horizon that contains it – from the hand before me that I can hold up and gaze at, to the body of which it is part, to the space I am moving in, to my usual haunts, to the city where I live – from one limited whole to another.  Jaspers emphasizes that the first step in philosophy must be chosen, even if many experiences lead one toward it.  Real thinking always has a deliberate character and represents a decision.

As I take a step away from a determinate object and moving towards the whole in which it is contained – away from being and moving toward Being – at the same time Being retreats before my grasping will to know.  All I can do is hold on to remnants and traces of Being in the form of beings – also the void left behind by its retreat.  I am tracking the traces of the Big in the small.  Thus I am trying to get out into The Open but in every case I am located in the Here and Now.

Thus I am enclosed within a small space – a fixed horizon – and in every case I try to pass beyond this space (“thinking beyond”).  Despite this, the horizon recedes and encircles me wherever I turn.  I never reach the final space or last space or the true space, where there is no “beyond.”  At best I make it as far as the current space and the next space.  Nor is there any sequence or accumulation of experiences that completes the description of The Open – a final accomplishing – instead I always have something to learn and there is always something new.

The point of moving from the small to the Big is not to possess the Big or become it (which in any case is impossible) but to cut free from the small and all the constraint it represents.  The point of this action is captured in the phrase “to get some critical distance” regarding a problem – this is what we are trying to do – that is what philosophy is about and what it is trying to accomplish.  It is (of course) absurd to try to accomplish this (since wherever we end up, we are still enclosed in a space).  Jaspers notes that we are trying to treat something non-objective as if it were an object; we are talking about “thinking beyond” in a very general way but in every case we have to “think beyond” the particular context we are in (we have to get out from very particular constraints).  Thus we are talking about reaching a new perspective but wherever we land we will have exactly the same work to do again.  Jaspers says that philosophy is possible because this absurdity – reaching for something that backs away – is something we can learn to work with.

“Truth has an indecisive character in temporal existence.  The form of communication appropriate to this indecisive being is indirect communication.  This is why Nietzsche and Kierkegaard – both open and candid spirits – show a penchant for masks.  Truth must be grasped in the process of becoming, drawn from the wellsprings of each separate and self-constructing Existenz.”

Jaspers concludes that the preeminent value upheld in philosophy is honesty.  Thus philosophy can watch over us but cannot nourish us.  Philosophy is what we do with experience but is not experience itself.

Philosophic honesty peering into the present situation of man confronts the problem of diversity – the problem of showing how different truths, that different human beings live by, can all be lived by simultaneously – how I can live my truth and let the other person live his truth, without gainsaying his truth or denying him the right to live by it – also without ceding my right to the truth I am trying to live.  How can I tolerate the “historic finitude” of the truth I have discovered or been given, in response to the challenge of the truth that my neighbor has discovered or been given?  Jaspers takes some first steps towards a cosmopolitan and global philosophic awareness, guided by the thought that as seekers we are all companions.  My counterpart, the advocate of a different truth, is my irreplaceable brother.  Cosmopolitanism takes up the struggle against totalitarianism – a cosmopolitan philosophy keeps the individual alive against totalitarianism – opposing the claim of allegedly “total knowledge” and like demands for unwavering loyalty.  There is no final revelation.  Jaspers’ conclusion is that we have to see ourselves as searchers.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom but philosophers are often dissatisfied with love – they tire of the search – they want to bring an end to love and reach wisdom itself.  Some philosophers claim that philosophy has come to an end in his or her thinking, as Spinoza does, for example, or Hegel, or Wittgenstein, or Heidegger.  They say: this is the true philosophy, this is the last philosophy, philosophy is no more, the questions have disappeared, we have shown that they are mistaken or not important anymore. The Polish thinker and student of Jaspers Leszek Ko?akowski teaches that Jaspers reaches beyond this kind of talk.  He claims that Jaspers shows us that philosophy “cannot tear the veil from ultimate reality” and is thus “a hopeless quest for knowledge rather than a way of gaining it” but also that Jaspers “still exhorts us to do philosophy” if only to show “that the veil exists.”  Thus Ko?akowski claims that Jaspers deserves the highest marks among modern thinkers both for facing reality and for surmounting it.  Jaspers saw “that the world does not offer us its own understanding.”  He also saw that if we did not make the attempt to leap over the barrier, we could not overcome the feeling that life is pointless.  “The attempt is doomed to death and is unable to conquer death, but it is also what makes us human.” Ko?akowski defines the central Jaspers thesis as a kind of puzzle: if existence were pointless and the universe were void of meaning, then we would never have achieved the ability to wonder whether existence is pointless or whether the universe is void of meaning.

2.  Some notes on Jaspers’ Psychology of Worldviews

As he was writing this work, Jaspers wrote to his father explaining that the thing he was trying to accomplish in this book was both to formulate “the worldview of human confidence in reason,” but also to avoid the trap of philistinism in which “so-called enlightenment” descends into mindless relativism and acceptance of any and all ideas as equal products of human invention.  Jaspers thought that he had found a middle ground between partisanship (and assertion of exclusive claims to the truth) and relativism (where adjudicating standards of assessment are ruled out because all viewpoints are leveled as free products of human creativity).  Jaspers saw the defining problem of his time – the epoch of World Wars – in the fact that opponents face one another via opposing defining and conflict-producing loyalties “yet in all essential facts we are all human beings who suffer” – “their suffering and our suffering is exactly the same thing.”  We need to overcome “the shells of fixed doctrines.”  Jaspers sees his work as a thinking person’s response to living in a time of destructive conflict and war, looking for a way out that emerges from the common bond of the human condition. We are a brotherhood of fellow sufferers, joined in having to face the problems of creating meaning and confronting death.  Human being, if we take it as a whole from this large perspective of the common bond, represents a kind of “cosmos of worldviews.”  The sheer plurality of these visions is another way of stating the defining problem of our time – the problem of tolerating the “historic finitude” of the truth I am searching for, have discovered or been given, in response to the challenge of the truth that my neighbor seeks or has discovered or been given – learning from plurality to eschew closed-off and totalitarian structures.  Jaspers appeals to the intuitive idea that in the open encounter and disputation of worldviews with one another, some visions “shine more brightly” in certain locations, or in certain times, more closely answering the present need.

Kant and Hegel both use the term Weltanschauung (worldview) to indicate comprehensive perspectives such as we associate with religious traditions.  The term was sometimes used interchangeably with Zeitgeist (spirit of the age) to indicate the general cultural climate of a place and time.  Wilhelm von Humboldt used the term to indicate the comprehensive lifeworld and approach to reality shared by a linguistic community or nation.  The term was in popular usage when Jaspers published his work – 1919 – Heidegger delivered his first lectures at the University of Freiburg the same year with the title “The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview” – and many other authors felt a need to address the problem of worldview in this period (e.g. Heinrich Rickert, Georg Simmel, Paul Natorp, Edmund Husserl, Nicolai Hartmann, Emil Lask).  By this period it was possible to refer to the ‘worldview’ of prehistoric man, the Confucian worldview, the medieval worldview; it was possible to refer to the worldview of smaller groups of people – not only world-historical entities such as the Roman Empire, or Catholicism, or the French nation – but more narrowly to groups within nations (Heidegger mentions peasants, factory workers, “educated people,” members of political parties, people who adhere to some or other religious doctrine, and committed partisans of varied social causes).  A guild or profession might share a ‘worldview,’ e.g. the clinical Weltanschauung that Jaspers developed by working in mental health.  At its furthest extension, the term referred to a given person’s attitude or general ‘philosophy’ or way of looking at things.  Yet all the above uses are alike in referring to a ‘worldview’ as something that is not chosen, or explicitly taken on, but instead is a feature of the life-conditions that one is born into, or that one takes on by becoming part of a group.  Even in the case where people talked about the ‘worldview’ of a given person, the sense was that the person came to this naturally, not by explicit processes of search and reason, but instead more in the nature of taking on certain attitudes by the company one keeps, or by being part of a generation, or by some or other form of shared belonging.

Jaspers uses the term Weltanschauung in this accepted sense as a natural (not explicitly chosen) attitude realized in life-experience and typical for a certain reference-set (a time, place, nation, subgroup).  He thinks that it is possible to read the generic ‘psychology’ of such a group, but only in barest outline. A person is enacting a kind of human archetype in the form of typical ideas, goals and hates.  The Weltanschauung in this sense is a compound of myriad parts, including “personality type” (e.g. realist, romantic, or spiritual personality types); a “basic orientation” (e.g., objective, self-reflective or enthusiastic); and a grounding “metaphysical conception of the world” (e.g., sensori-spatial, psychological-cultural, or “totalizing-absolute,” each of varied kinds).

The important distinction between ‘worldview’ and ‘philosophy’ is the distinction between pre-theoretical understanding and explicitly theorized understanding.  Heidegger says that “when someone strives for a higher autonomous worldview, cultivating a thinking free of religious and other dogmas, then one is doing philosophy” (“The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview,” War Emergency Semester 1919, Freiburg, section 1).  At the same time, when someone tries to get some distance from all the ‘natural’ attitudes with which he has been raised, and which he has taken on by belonging to different groups – i.e., when this person starts trying to do philosophy – the goal is to develop a comprehensive point of view, a generic frame of reference for interpreting all experience – i.e. philosophy tries to articulate a comprehensive ‘worldview.’  Heidegger expresses this idea in his 1919 lecture course by saying things like “philosophy is metaphysics” and “philosophy’s struggle with the puzzles of life and the world comes to rest by establishing the ultimate nature of the universe realized as a worldview” and “the task of philosophy is worldview.”

Jaspers uses these terms in similar ways (moving from one’s natural “creed” (Bekenntnis) as a function of one’s standpoint in time, to an individually created “scientifically observing philosophy”).  He sets himself the goal of moving from the natural worldview of his milieu to the worldview emerging from his work in philosophy.  This latter worldview, as he conceives it, opens itself to the diversity of philosophical conception – to the “cosmos of worldviews” – answering the problem of historic finitude with tolerance – also recognizing that the other person may or may not have taken the step from creed to science, or worldview to philosophy.

Thus the problem is to move from the natural worldview to the philosophical worldview – the problem is philosophy – i.e., the problem is to find a way forward from the natural standpoint.

Jaspers’ first approach is to say more about what philosophy is and explicate its existential root.  In effect, Jaspers is attempting to lay out a psychology of philosophy.  He is trying to uncover some of the elemental emotional and human roots out of which philosophy emerges and to which it always refers.  Philosophy jumps out from the natural standpoint but remains tied to it.

“The object of philosophizing is not separated from what philosophizing is really all about.”  In science, knowing something does not identify the knower with the thing known (except perhaps as Aristotle theorizes in De Anima, III, 5).  Thus an insight into a chemical process is not itself a chemical process.  “But when I philosophize, I commit my self-being to be present in the object” – that is, I cease to be a philosopher when I try to be nothing but objective – the point is explicitly not to let “the things themselves” speak for themselves – the point is my commitment, my personal engagement in the search.  Thus the big issue is the kind of being that I become within my philosophical engagement.  Philosophy is a way of working on my engagement in the world (my “worldview”) and is not about standing face-to-face with or determining the exact nature of beings or Being.  “The goal of science is objective cognition; but the goal of philosophy is the self-understanding of Existenz.”

Philosophy cannot be communicated in observations and theses such as we find in scientific treatises.  Neither is philosophy about possible standpoints offered to the discerning and choosing intellect.  Instead, philosophy is a kind of commitment; a kind of summons; a kind of awakening and call to awakening.  “Freedom turns to freedom” – that is: a searcher finds a way to express the current state of his or her search and makes a free offer of it to other searchers.  The point of the offering is not to win over the other person or persuade anyone of anything, but to establish and preserve the cosmos of worldviews.


As Jaspers explicates it, the work of establishing and preserving the cosmos of worldviews is, at the same time, work on founding and continuing my own search and philosophical understanding – these are two ways of looking at the same work.  We make our way forward from the natural standpoint to a philosophical framework – the work of explicit observation, analysis, critique, conjecture and refutation – by talking.  The problem of conducting my search, and the problem of making a place for the other person’s search, is the same problem.  I learn to converse, and to become a conversation, simultaneously – the same thing that drives me to dig into myself and question what I believe also makes me listen closely when I hear someone talk about his search and his questioning his beliefs.

“In philosophy, I feel impelled to speak urgently, to approach the other tempestuously, but if this makes him follow me, I lose … Philosophical thinking only wants to awaken possibility; it does not want submission or imitation.”

3.  Some Background on Heidegger

Heidegger’s story is better known than Jaspers’ and I will not dwell on it here.  Suffice it to say that Heidegger hails from the other extreme of Germany – in Messkirch, near the border with Switzerland – the province of Baden-Württemberg, with its contrast of Alemannic and Franconian dialects – he grew up and was educated in the rural, conservative and Catholic culture of South Germany, and came to philosophy, not from the study of medicine, as in Jaspers’ case, but from theology.

The way in which Heidegger was drawn to philosophy plays an important role in the way he thinks about philosophy, though his thoughts about it as a young man seem very different than what he had to say at the end of his life.  In brief he came to philosophy because he had the experience of waking up and suddenly realizing that he was already entangled in many relationships, that he was already possessed of many characteristics, that he was already a part of something much greater than himself – all of this came upon him of a sudden – and then it struck him that he had forgotten the question of being; it struck him that everyone had forgotten this question; our existence no longer strikes us but is simply given and unthought.  As he says in his late work What is Called Thinking?, “The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.”  As a young man he thought that he could reawaken this question.  Thus the most important thing is to seize responsibility for one’s existence and overcome the vulgar and unthought condition of merely remaining what one already happens to be.  We have to move from the natural standpoint to explicit philosophy.

At the end of his life he gave this up – he arrived at the very different conclusion that “the greatness of what is to be thought is still too great for us” – we are not up to it, we are not ready for it – all we can do is “expect” and work on getting ready – and “only a god can save us.”

In this essay I am trying to understand both the youthful ambition and the mature despair – more importantly, I am trying to articulate what they share in contrast to Jaspers’ idea of philosophy.

Heidegger’s startling 1927 work Sein und Zeit (“Being and Time”) – representing the thinking of the young Heidegger – takes up the challenge of reawakening the question of what it means to exist, exploring the ways in which human beings are “already” involved in complex networks of relationships and how we exit “alreadyness” to inaugurate “authentic” existence.  The book analyzes in great detail the different senses of space, time and sociality fitted to “everydayness,” as well as the opposite senses of these terms as they apply to authentic human existence.

Sein und Zeit cites Jaspers’ work Psychologie Der Weltanschauungen in several places and makes these observations about it: “Jaspers takes as his clue to the significance of death (for human reality) the phenomenon of the ‘limit-situation’ as he has set it forth – a phenomenon whose fundamental significance goes beyond any typology of attitudes or worldviews”; “Jaspers is the first to have explicitly grasped the real task of a doctrine of worldviews and carried it through”; “Here for the first time the question of ‘what man is’ is raised and answered in terms of what man can be.”

Jaspers and Heidegger met in person at a birthday celebration for Edmund Husserl in Heidelberg on April 8, 1921.  They had already read a good deal of one another’s works, but were wary of one another – however, they did become friends and kept up their friendship, visiting each other often, until the fateful year 1933.  Jaspers was only six years older than Heidegger, but Heidegger considered him an elder and someone who belonged to the preceding generation.  Heidegger and his teacher Rickert both considered Jaspers a kind of interloper in philosophy, especially since he was largely self-taught.  They both regarded his works as lacking formal rigor or perhaps even verging on incoherence, and, most especially, as insufficiently grounded in the Greeks.  Neither respected Max Weber, whereas for Jaspers Weber was a defining figure.  But Heidegger respected Jaspers’ “human greatness and purity of intention” and realized that Jaspers’ deep medical knowledge and clinical experience had helped him to peer into profound depths of philosophy – he tried to learn as much from him as he could.  But he also wrote disparagingly of Jaspers’ citified orientation, liberalism, cosmopolitanism and world-embracing outlook, all of which for Heidegger indicated rootlessness and a lack of standards.  Jaspers, for his part, was inspired by Heidegger’s creativity as a thinker and his phenomenal and clarifying grasp of the history of philosophy; but he was also suspicious of him politically and wary about Heidegger’s advice to him to “join in.”  Heidegger accused Jaspers of being completely out of touch with what was happening in Germany (about which, perhaps, he was right – Jaspers later wrote “I was still convinced that National Socialism would never triumph in Germany.”)

Jaspers, for his part, wondered in notes to himself from the 30s whether it was possible that a philosophy could be true as a written work, as an intellectual construction, yet false as a practical guide to action.  “What is the relation of thinking and practice?  Authentically, what is Heidegger and what is he doing?” (In later years he accused himself of failing his friend – “I should have spoken with him.  I should have found a way to break through.   … I failed the enthused and intoxicated Heidegger.”)

4.  Heidegger’s review of Jaspers’ Psychology of Worldviews

From paragraph 5 of the review: “The basic approach of this review lies in its attempt to free up the real tendencies of Jaspers’ work.”  Heidegger thinks that he has discovered the primary direction and the real motivation underlying Jaspers’ problems.  He also thinks that Jaspers’ approach is out of sync with the deep impetus that underlies it.  He intends to reason his way past Jaspers’ investigation, by following the real, underlying tendency of the inquiry to the very clear direction it points us.  He adds: we cannot accomplish this “by adopting fixed standards,” or “by the aid of a finished philosophy established on some secure foundation” or “evaluated in terms of a consummate objective systematics in the field of philosophical analysis.”  He also rules out any reference to a fixed ideal of scientific or logical rigor to assess Jaspers’ work.

Heidegger rules out these strategies for judging Jaspers’ argument because he denies that these methods arrive at truth; he even asserts that creating a “new” philosophy from which to assess Jaspers’ work would be equally pointless.  Instead of stumbling again through these missteps, “we need to explicate the original motivational situations in which the fundamental experiences of philosophy have arisen.”  We have to get back to the basic experiences that call up philosophy in the first place – experiences that afterward become developed and refined and ultimately get expressed as familiar, but perhaps misconceived, epistemological, logical and scientific ideals.  Thus – apparently – the only way Heidegger can give us a fitting tribute and critique of Jaspers’ work is by uncovering the basic experiences that give rise to philosophy – which would appear to be a much larger task than assessing Karl Jaspers’, or any other thinker’s, contributions.  But of course if we hit upon the original untrammelled Truth and somehow possess it without error or sin, then all things become possible and indeed we can give Jaspers, and every other thinker, a fitting tribute and critique.  Heidegger says that we have to restrict ourselves to this task (recovering the original motivational situations in which the fundamental experiences of philosophy have arisen) and this restriction is exactly what philosophy is.


So, we have to get back to very primordial circumstances and grasp philosophy as it emerges from this primal – original – unfolding matrix.  But to describe this root situation and primordial condition – the thing that we have to get back to – this is extremely difficult – Heidegger loops around this question several times and gradually tries to zero in on the urgent thing he sees.  He describes his process of offering up strategies and then renouncing them, because they all show signs of being late developments and complex refinements of philosophical ideas that, in their pure state, make many fewer claims but also shed much more light.  We have to renounce late forms of philosophy because they fall short of the root form of philosophy in its still inchoate primordial state.  We want to reach back to philosophy before it falls apart into philosophies – asking before it congeals into belief – returning to the prime question of being.  Circling around and zeroing in on the root “motivational situations” lying at the origin of philosophy, Heidegger makes out a startling, central finding – i.e. that we dig down to the primordial level of things by worrying – “an incessant actualizing of a certain worry about achieving primordiality is what constitutes primordiality.” We are talking about a very important kind of worry that Jaspers’ work has caught hold of, though Jaspers has not traced it to its deep indwelling source.  Kierkegaard called this worry “fear and trembling,” “sickness unto death” and “dread,” and Heidegger will later call it “anxiety” and “care” – the center of his argument in Being and Time.

Worry, anxiety, dread plays a role as the “mood,” state, humor or emotional tone in which we feel the prospect of death.  By definition, we are not “in” the moment, because we are worrying instead.  Falling out of the moment and “substantiated” as a state of anxiety, our “bad mood” or “troubled mood” calls attention to, and powerfully uncovers, the sheer fact that we are alive.  Worry is a kind of oppression by the inexistent future on the experiential present – an invasion of the present by the future – also a kind of hyperattention, perseveration or inability to get free from the past.  Worry is a disruption in the sense of time, which is precisely why it forces us out of the flow of time, as we get all fussed up in worry, bumbling in the darkness of a “bad mood.”

Worrying about something is attending to it and making it present.  But once you are worrying, once you are struggling, once you are parachuted into this war zone in feeling, you begin to fight – you fight with yourself and also explicitly confront and deconstruct the mood in which you find yourself.  That is: the original motivational situation from which philosophy emerges is – roughly speaking – worry itself.  That is: Jaspers has hit upon the fundamental psychology of philosophy.  He has uncovered the activating human responsiveness out of which philosophy emerges.

Heidegger proposes that we explicitly appropriate this worry and direct it to ourselves and demand of ourselves “whether it is not high time to determine” whether we have really come to terms with ourselves and who we really are.  Up to now we have been preoccupied with the “preservation of culture”; we are a “hustle and bustle” and an immersion in triviality and everydayness; but what we should be is a “firm hold” and “willful resolution” asking the most important questions in a philosophically rigorous manner.  The point is to know and feel “the nature of the intuitive experiences lying at the basis” of philosophical questioning, and not become sidetracked with late developments and refinements of this basic worrying attunement.

Heidegger identifies this worrying self-regarding investigatory state of mind as self-critique and, ultimately, as pointing in a very clear direction – as a powerful impetus – as leading the thinker towards a definite result that he calls “thinking without presuppositions.”  Thus the kind of worrying thinking that he is talking about shows us that we are holding up the flow of time on the strength of a presupposition – what he calls a “forethought” in Being and Time – i.e. because we have a certain kind of expectation, we experience the present as “worry.”  In the wake of worry and dread, the guiding presuppositions of a complex life-construction come to light –

worrying makes it easier to see what we care about – we worry and thus expose the guiding presuppositions of thoughtforms realized in this mind, this culture, this people, this time and place – where every thoughtform makes some things completely natural and unquestioned, and other things odd, strange, uncanny, not familiar but extraordinary.

Worrying – confronting struggle, chance, guilt and death, as Jaspers names them – facing “limit situations” and wrestling with “existential givens” – worrying and worrying again uncovers the round of presuppositions and the interdependence of fixed idea and anxious mind.  But worrying eventually becomes self-conscious and opens a space for the critique of worry. Thinking with presuppositions eventually uncovers its presuppositions – presumptions that guided thought up until the moment in which self-critique awakens – thus heralding “thinking without presuppositions.”  In a sense, thinking without presuppositions is thinking without taking anything for granted, so that especially the sheer existence of the thinker, in whom the worry takes shape, finally comes into view.  Thus human experience is (at minimum) the vicissitudes of presuppositions, worries, life-constrcutions that conduct and obstruct the flow of time, self-criticism, investigation, uncovering and finally “thinking without presuppositions.”

Heidegger summarizes this chain of reasoning in his high praise of Jaspers’ work: “Thus the object investigated in Jaspers’ work can be defined in formal indication as human existence.”

Heidegger set himself the goal of freeing up the underlying tendencies of Jaspers’ work.  What he shows is that Jaspers has uncovered the psychology of philosophy.  He shows that Jaspers has caught hold of the fundamental philosophical experience.  He shows that Jaspers has managed to make human existence itself into a problem – which, he says, is an enormous step forward.

“The progress achieved in Jaspers’ work lies in the fact that his classification of the phenomena, never previously made available in exactly this manner, has called our attention to the problem of existence” but “its philosophical shortcoming in respect to the need for actually getting down to work and delving into this problem is clearly visible in Jaspers’ use of unexamined ideas.”

Heidegger’s criticism of Jaspers’ “unexamined ideas” starts out from Jaspers’ vague talk about “worldviews,” which (Heidegger argues) are simply too many things – guiding foreconceptions, attitudes, general contexts of thinking, the general spiritual situation of a time or place, a system of ideas, a personal commitment, a point of view or even a political cause – even general types of psychological character such as “realist,” “romantic” and “spiritual” type.  He thinks that Jaspers has bumped into key ideas (such as existence itself; also, confronting existence in limit situations such as chance, struggle, guilt and death; and authenticity and inauthenticity) but he does not think that Jaspers is at all clear about how these ideas work or in whom they take place.  The big objection is simply that Jaspers has simply taken over the idea of the self in use in the psychology of his day, but he has not thought this through this conception or assured himself that he has a right to use this idea by understanding its emergence and all its interconnected aspects.  He also objects to Jaspers’ method – especially his way of observing phenomena without examining the concepts he is employing in the act of observing.  Finally, he objects to Jaspers’ framing of the problem of the diversity of worldviews as the problem of our time – also to Jaspers’ solution to this problem in the idea that “freedom turns to freedom.”

In coming back against Jaspers and trying to solve some of the problems posed in Jaspers’ work, Heidegger sketches some of his own most important ideas, later worked out in detail in Being and Time.  The first has to do with the general approach itself.  Heidegger notes that Jaspers acknowledges that he (Jaspers) has no particular method in his investigation (Jaspers says that “We have no dominant method, but rather now this one, now that one” – also claiming that mainly what he is doing is “mere observation”).  Heidegger claims that the problem with starting out without a fundamental reflection about method, is that the result is certain to be “an uncritical lapse into one or another particular interpretation” of the thing we are studying – human existence itself.  This problem among all others “requires a radical reflection on method.”  “For it should be obvious that one cannot approach the problem of human existence directly.” This is obvious because the thing we are trying to catch hold of and characterize cannot be encountered as if it were a thing that we can pick up and take a look at.  In Jaspers’ terms, the problem is that we are trying to treat something non-objective as if it were an object.  Since it is non-objective, or not an object, but is nonetheless real – it is the reality for us – it is something that demands thinking about.  This means that the way in which we go about approaching human existence (the way in which we choose to think about it) will shape everything we come up with at the end.  This is the case because the object we are trying to apprehend in our study is exactly what it is by virtue of the method we use to get to it.  “Method in this case is part of the object’s very makeup and is not something foisted on it from outside.”  Thus it will be all-too-easy for us to fix on some surrogate phenomenon and unthinkingly let that pass for the genuine phenomenon.  We have to go very far out of our way not to do this; and to satisfy this out-of-the-way requirement demands some radically new thinking.

Heidegger begins this new line of thinking by saying that the thing that turns out to be crucial in this connection – the key to the problem we are looking at – is that “I have myself.”  The key is the basic experience in which I encounter myself as a self.  Heidegger tries to figure out what this “me having myself” amounts to.  He lists many things that it is not.  It is not experiencing being, or feeling that one is located, in a certain place.  It is not the experience of being an example of a universal.  It is not the empirical subject.  It is not what we are looking at in making observations in psychology.  It is not even a psychic phenomenon.  Nor is it the physical body.

Instead, “I have myself” in the sense that I am worried about myself; in the sense that I am an issue for myself; in the sense that I matter to myself; and in the sense that I care about myself.

But (he says) I care or worry about myself only because I have expectations about myself – all my experiences occur within a horizon of expectations that engenders worry, care, mattering, being an issue.  Thus the experience of “having myself” takes place in an historical context.  I have myself because I have a past.  But “the past is not like an appendage that the “I” drags along with it.”  The past is the specific content in which this particular potential-for-worry actually takes shape as a given worry, as a given set of expectations, as a given striving after actualization, based on a history that has preceded it.  Thus before I have myself I have already been had: already been determined as a set of expectations about myself because of my history – that arose in my past – because of what has happened to me – because of what was.

Hans-Georg Gadamer restates this idea in a famous passage in his 1960 work Truth and Method:

“History does not belong to us, but we belong to it.  Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in self-evident ways in the family, society and the state in which we live.  The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror.  The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuit of historical life.  That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being.”

Heidegger emphasizes: it is a characteristic tendency of human potential-for-worry to stay in its present worry, the worry in which it has already been determined; also, it is a characteristic tendency of human potential-for-worry to fall into forms of worry as these press upon us from biology, from the family, from the society, from the environment; and thus it is a characteristic tendency of human potential-for-worry to forestall ever determining this worry for oneself.

In fact the “characteristic intellectual situation” of our time is a “muddled interplay of biological, psychological, social-scientific, aesthetic-ethical, and religious concepts” that collapse into an amorphous concept of “life” before which we stand completely inert, hapless and flummoxed.  (The problem of our time is not the diversity of worldviews but the universality of muddle.)

Heidegger reasons that the only way “I have myself” fundamentally and radically is by subjecting every previous concrete tradition in which my worry has taken shape to a thoroughgoing destruction, so that the worry-process itself is brought into relief; thus I have the chance to determine my worry about myself for myself; so that fundamentally and finally “I have myself.”

Human existence is “loaded down with tradition” and thus constantly faces the challenge of unhinging itself from tradition.  The problem is to find a way of letting the self’s worry about itself emerge, become visible, become problematized – deconstructed as a binding necessity and thus “destroyed” as a defining worry – destroyed because its power to dictate expectations evaporates as soon as it is unmasked as a construction absorbed or explicitly learned in the past.

A last step in the argument takes us from the idea of calling attention to constructed worries and thus uncoupling ourselves from these worries, to the very different idea that the overall solution to the problem of authentic human self-determination has to do with staying in the process of questioning expectations and preserving oneself in problematizing experience.  The idea is to persevere in the problem state rather than replace the deconstructed worry with a new one.  We do not solve the problem of being obsessed with wealth by becoming obsessed with power – or happiness, or goodness, or truth – or anything else.  The solution is not to replace one worry with another.  The solution is to take control of worry – which Heidegger interprets to mean inhabiting the worry – being it – keeping a “firm hold” and a “willful resolution” – concentrating on the fundamental experience of worry and asking the most important questions in a philosophically rigorous manner.  The point is to know and feel “the nature of the intuitive experiences lying at the basis” of philosophical questioning, and not become sidetracked with late developments and refinements of this basic worrying attunement.

Heidegger’s formulations for this ‘taking control’ stress its interminability – this is “incessant actualizing,” “continual renewal,” “constant renewal,” “constantly standing at the starting point.” The end goal is “an infinite process of radical questioning that always includes itself in its questions and preserves itself in them” (this is the last line of Heidegger’s review).

This is his 1920 statement on “thinking without presuppositions” – an idea that he continued to reformulate over the years – later it is called Gelassenheit, for example (“releasement,” or “meditative thinking” as opposed to “calculation” or “calculative thinking,” from Discourse on Thinking, 1959).

The final Heidegger has given up the idea of staying in the process of questioning expectations and preserving oneself in problematizing experience because these formulations speak to a powerful sense of agency that he no longer feels.  But his quietist or meditative ideas from late years speak to a similar ‘remaining in process’ – e.g. “dwelling,” “staying open to Being,” or “standing in the draft,” to cite a few Heideggerian formulations of similar ideas from the 1950s and 60s.  Philosophy grows out a certain kind of worry.  Initially the task seems to be to take over the worry machine, reset the dials and decide for oneself what to worry about.  Later the task seems to be to convert the worry machine into a listening device and start listening to Being.

These forms of thinking make Heidegger reject Jaspers’ solution to the problem of diversity.  Jaspers thought that an honest solution to the diversity of philosophical attitudes must lie in virtues like openness and tolerance.  The problem is to overcome “the shells of fixed doctrines.”  “Freedom turns to freedom” – that is: each of us must find a way to express the current state of our search and make a free offer of it to other searchers.  The point of the offering is not to win anyone over or persuade anyone of anything, but to enact our being authentically, to connect with people, and thus co-create the space in which we all struggle as the cosmos of worldviews.

But Heidegger thinks that all this talk of worldviews is plainly muddled.  He doubts that Jaspers has really thought the problem through.  Jaspers is merely speculating that people frame their experience with different attitudes and loyalties, and this is why Jaspers looks for a way to erect a principle of non-interference – that way, we can all do our own work of reflection and make our own choices.  But if Jaspers actually observed this condition as a reality we all face, then he would be imposing on his readers a particular view of the world that all of us would have to concede and share.  But (Heidegger claims) this is not even remotely the case, and Jaspers has not established the diversity of worldviews as a fact.  Instead, he has merely used concepts currently enshrined in the culture (and current in the medical practice of the day) without thoroughly thinking through the situations these concepts purport to describe.  The relevant sense in which “we have ourselves” and pose problems to ourselves is not even something that could be observed.  “We have ourselves” only by destroying tradition – not by using current vocabularies – when we knock down houses of cards and clear the field, then we can begin to determine the worry-process for ourselves.  Doing so may not result in anything like a philosophy or a metaphysics or a “worldview” that we could define or offer anyone else.  It is merely the beginning of a process in which thinking gets free of presuppositions.

Thus the problem is not one of respecting the other person’s substantiation in a given worry.  There is nothing there to respect.  The point is to destroy thoughtlessness.  But this is something each of us has to do on our own; or, at the least, I have to prepare my own readiness, and you have to prepare yours.  Your respect will not help me, and my respect will not help you.

5. Two Points in Thoughtspace

Jaspers talks about Existence, Heidegger talks about Being.  Jaspers talks about thinking beyond, Heidegger talks about thinking without presuppositions.  Jaspers wants to get out from constraint – to get free of smallness and get out into the open.  Heidegger wants to get back to the beginning – to get free of corruption and get back to the source.  Jaspers talks about the awakening, Heidegger talks about the clearing.  Jaspers talks about overcoming dogmatism and upholding tolerance.  Heidegger talks about overcoming forgetfulness and upholding rigor.  Jaspers says that philosophy is what we do with experience.  Heidegger says that philosophy is what experience does with us.  For Jaspers the human task is to practice humanity (philosophy, and human thought and endeavor, are what we make them).  For Heidegger the human task is to await the sacred (philosophy, and human thought and endeavor, are completely powerless).

The encounter between Heidegger and Jaspers is analogous to the encounter between Plato and Aristotle.  The standpoints of these ancient thinkers make a similar, still sharper contrast.  Plato sees the world as fractured, violent, more ruled by instinct than reason; Platonic themes include the sense that the world is an illusion, broken people, longing for the other world, the chaotic universe and the Ideal behind it, the darkness and the ascent; life is a pilgrimage, beauty a hint of the divine; Plato’s virtues are selflessness, endurance and imagination; his vices are self-hatred, intolerance and fanaticism.  By contrast, Aristotle is at home in his humanity; economic growth, political expansion, cultural optimism, friendship, investigation of the natural world, and pride in understanding, are Aristotelian themes; the world is orderly, harmonious, immortal, and beauty is purpose; the task is to know nature and improve society; Aristotle’s virtues are curiosity and conviviality; his vices are arrogance and complacency.

Plato and Heidegger are alike in looking at philosophy as something that comes to man – something received – withdrawing from the hubbub and standing in awe of being.  Reason is somehow too little to capture awe, which is more like a “meditative thinking” or revelation.  Philosophy is something we do alone in some pinnacle of experience in face of the Ultimate.

Aristotle and Jaspers are alike in looking at philosophy as something that we bring to the world – something active – trying to look at reality squarely and bring naturalism to everything we see.  Reason is our very core and, as Jaspers says “thinking is as thinker does” – reason loves, reason sees, reason communicates and acts.  Philosophy is something we do in company right here in everyday life interacting with our friends.

Aristotle points forward, Plato upward in Raphael’s painting The School of Athens; this is a way of making out the contrast between this-worldliness and other-worldliness; the red tunic of the soldier, the black frock of the priest; the virtue of “humaneness” in Confucius’ Analects, the “higher point of view” in Taoism; “concern for everybody” (Mo Tzu) and “to see things in the light of heaven” (from the Qui Wu Lun); medicine and theology, care of man and care of God.

Rabindranath Tagore and Mohandas Gandhi were close friends and often supported one another – raising funds for each other’s political causes – but they also disagreed about many things and (strangely) their disagreements were fundamental.  Gandhi was suspicious of reason, was a traditionalist about religion, advocated using symbols in politics because many people cannot understand complicated issues, was a nationalist, was an advocate for celibacy and held the view that everyone in his country should spend one half-hour a day at a spinning wheel.  Tagore believed in science and rational argument, had nondenominational kinds of religious views, said that politicians should simply speak the truth and let the people sort it out, was an internationalist, a love-poet, and held the view that India could only solve its economic problems by modernizing and especially by making a modern education available to everyone.

I am trying to rough out a picture, a kind of map, and I have located two points on this terrain.  Let us call the terrain ‘thoughtspace’ – I have drawn some diagrams showing where these two points occur together in thoughtspace – it is there in Western philosophy, it is there in Chinese philosophy, it is there in Indian philosophy – the same figure is inscribed in maps from around the world.  The different points on this terrain suggest different kinds of societies – different schools, such as the Academy and the Lyceum, the Confucian school and the Taoists, Gandhi’s ashram Sabarmati and Tagore’s college Santiniketan.  The question that jumps out from the picture is ‘what is philosophy?’  What sense is there that there are different positions in philosophy, different schools, contrasting ‘worldviews’ rather than agreement and unity?  How is it possible that philosophy is in one version ‘this-worldliness’ and in another ‘other-worldliness’ – red or black, earthly or ethereal – why would philosophy have versions at all?

Thinking through some arguments with Heidegger and Jaspers makes us look again at the origins of philosophy – questioning whether philosophy exists at all or is still in the making.  Here are a few more steps in the same argument, aimed at seeing the import of philosophy for action.

6.  Why there are Many Philosophies

Philosophy originates in a social context and philosophy problematizes a social context.  Philosophy has minimally two moments: the inherited conglomerate (the home culture, the tradition, everything a person is meant to learn and pass on to new generations); and criticism.

The French thinker Jean Beaudrillard argues that when philosophy takes off from the inherited conglomerate – the cultural platform, the tradition, the given – and inaugurates criticism, it is responding, and not simply reacting, to the limitations of its home culture.  It is not just the child who wants to get some independence from the parents.  It is not just reaction.  It is replying to something, mediated by the culture, but also transcending the culture.  Thus philosophy like art and religion is something that comes up in human cultural evolution – it has a social origin and context – it is ‘this-worldly.’  And philosophy also like art and religion grows outside its home context and offers to enlighten people who are not members of the tribe in which these cultural forms arose – it is ‘other-worldly.’  Beaudrillard argues that the thing that philosophy specifically is responding to – mediated by the culture but transcending it; rooted in the culture but growing beyond it – is the enigmatic situation in which we all stand every single moment of our lives.

Heidegger calls this enigmatic situation “Being,” Plato talks about wonder (thauma), Wittgenstein talks about wondering about the existence of the world, and Jaspers examines Existenz.  You are face-to-face with the fact that you are alive – you are self-consciously mortal – this is a peculiar state of mind and gets people into a critical, questioning, searching kind of life.  And even after a brief sojourn in searching you notice that many people around you are asking the very same questions.   Plato and Aristotle were keen enough to see, and begin to examine, barbaros philosophia – strangers’ philosophies – thus framing the ‘conflict of worldviews.’

Jaspers thinks about the ‘conflict of worldviews’ and argues for learning about other cultures, learning about other people, and the great variety of truths/lies – we have to take it in, tolerate it, respect it, include it with one’s own – taking them all as examples of ‘worldviews’ – also taking what ‘I’ think as just another such example.  Jaspers lets himself think about a future in which this plurality was accepted, normalized, celebrated – not precluding argument, but containing it in a shared commitment to philosophy – a cultural teaching that itself may become part of an inherited conglomerate and thus become problematized by future philosophers.

Heidegger questions whether other people get far enough even to begin thinking – also doubting whether he himself is thinking – he wonders if perhaps none of us have gotten very far – thus there may be no ‘conflict of worldviews’ – at least not yet – we may not see enough yet to construct any such view – not even enough to begin thinking – we’re still in the cave.

Jaspers imagines himself out in the world, engaged with other people and learning from them.

Heidegger makes the different case for everyone’s need to break out of inauthentic, thoughtless existence via the experience of worry, anxiety, dread, in which we face the prospect of death, and out of which (he asserts) genuineness and real self-examination are born.  But he has almost nothing to say about how another person’s work in philosophy impacts my own, except to note that we are all “weighed down by tradition” and that living authentically implies destroying tradition.  Thus for Jaspers, philosophy lives in society; for Heidegger, in the self.

Jaspers argues that my work on developing my own ‘worldview,’ and the other person’s work as he is developing his philosophy, are interconnected, interdependent, and mutually supportive – the other’s person’s work helps me to see my own work in the proper light – without people I become “worldless.”  Heidegger argues that the only way that people can really see anything and begin to live authentically is by breaking through the “stubborn dominion” of social life, breaking out of its disguises and compromises – in social life “everyone is the other and no one is himself” – “publicness” obscures, levels and corrupts – real thought is stark loneliness.

It is significant that Jaspers developed the germ of the existentialist idea while working in clinical psychology and by reflecting on the interaction between therapist and patient – extended to a reflection about all human interaction – focused on the idea that the currency that human beings trade with one another – or withhold, or dump – the matter of give and take, is affect.  Jaspers, the inventor of the “biographical method” in psychology, learned how to give of himself and also receive from the other person.  He saw this commerce as the kernel of everyday interactions.  Sometimes fighting against Freud – arguing against Freud’s “reductionism,” his tendency to reduce man to a “puppet of the unconscious” and his “depriving man of his basic dignity” – he also called himself a Freudian and especially supported Freud’s statement that “psychoanalysis is in essence a cure through love” – in Jaspers’ terms the personality exists in a communicative context and is sustained, buoyed, or brought low, altering in der Kampf in der Liebe (war in the state of love; loving struggle) – a conception of “intercommunicative dignity.”

Jaspers sees everyone as a moral agent, called to reach out to the other; this call is essential to selfhood.  The core ethical ought is: become what you are.  But “the thesis of my philosophizing is: the individual cannot become human by himself.  Self-being is only realized in communication with another self-being.  Alone – I sink into gloom – in community – I rise into fulfillment in the work of mutual discovery.  My own freedom can only exist if the other person is free.”

Jaspers frames the overarching problem of The Psychology of Worldviews in the following lines:

“There are certain crucial situations that are bound up with our very humanity and unavoidably given for our finite Dasein … Limit situations are experienced as something ultimate for human life … The life of the mind is oriented towards unity … But the consciousness of our existence comes about through our experience of division … The collision of the search for unity and the reality of division throws up an obstacle … This is experienced as a limit … It is because we are trying to understand our experience, or reconcile our yearning for unity with the reality of division, that we meet opposition, and thus become conscious as such … The primal phenomenon of experience lies in the fact that the subject is divided from the object … Human beings live in the form of this division; the subject-object split is the very essence of human understanding … But they never come to rest here, but are always striving after some goal, purpose, value, good – for unity.  Thus we and our world are split apart in the form of an antinomy, and this structural antinomy for our Dasein becomes conditional for any worldview whatsoever … The movement of our lives in worldviews has to be understood from the circumstance of this antinomy; but we are always on paths leading to the infinite or the whole.”

Heidegger’s review wrestles with the above characterization of the “fundamental problem of the initial conditions of worldviews” and offers the critique that Jaspers’ “attempt to understand life is forced to turn the surge and flux of the aforementioned process into a static concept which thereby destroys the essence of life, i.e. the restlessness and movement that characterize life’s actualization.”  But Heidegger also accepts the above characterization of the problem of initial conditions; he accepts that Jaspers has characterized the fundamental ‘already’ situation that we have to face; he accepts the idea that the primal phenomenon of experience, i.e. the division of subject and object, is the source of consciousness, Existenz, the human kind of ‘is.’

Jaspers says that he is thinking about the conflict of worldviews, and even more so the conflict of philosophically clarified and elucidated points of view, but also says that there is no point of view unless there is a whole that it is a point of view of – the whole within which every point of view is contained.  Jaspers’ explanations rest on the idea of difference marked out within an infinite whole.  Heidegger asks Jaspers the interesting question: where did you get this infinite whole?  Jaspers says: I only need to look around in order to see it.  Heidegger responds by asserting that Jaspers has anchored his entire conception of life and especially the part of it called “human reality” in an “aesthetic experience.”  Jaspers talks about “the infinite whole of life” and says that the splitting up of the subject and object – which is where “human beings live” and is “the very essence of human understanding” – only makes sense against the background of something that is not split. He says, I only need to look around to see this surrounding, encompassing whole, and when I experience the enigma of sheer being, I am experiencing precisely this infinite whole – so, yes, I am sensing something, seeing it, feeling it, and it is accurate to say that this is an “aesthetic experience.”  Heidegger quarrels with this idea and calls it “an untested opinion.” He says that Jaspers has not acknowledged the unthought  “prestructuring” and “historically contingent sources” that play into this idea, which he thinks Jaspers has probably received from Luther and Kant and Kierkegaard, or perhaps even earlier from Aristotle or Plato.

Heidegger does not think we can begin philosophizing from an observation – from merely looking around or an “aesthetic experience” – because observation is theory-laden and a relatively late accomplishment in philosophical thinking.  If this is the starting-point, then we have to get back to the basic experiences that call up philosophy in the first place – we have to get back to very primordial circumstances and grasp philosophy as it emerges from this deep source – and this is “fear and trembling,” “dread,” “worry,” “anxiety,” “care” – the primal emotion in which the prospect of death finally becomes real for us – the “sickness unto death.”

Jaspers looks around and sees the infinite whole of life and he thinks that he can begin philosophical questioning from this basic experience.  He says that this is an experience of mystery.  We are amazed into philosophy.  Heidegger says that we have to begin instead with worry and trembling and the fear of death.  We have to be scared into philosophy.

Thus we stumble on at least one more ‘conflict of worldviews’ – the confrontation between mystery and worry – philosophy as conversation or philosophy as loneliness – philosophy originating in love or fear – conflicting opposite basic stances opening up and closing down.

Why are there versions of philosophy? Why are there many philosophies?  Why does philosophy break itself apart and become ‘philosophies’ instead?  Jaspers recognizes different kinds of personalities, basic orientations and metaphysical conceptions of the world; he argues that philosophies emerge from social milieus, but remain tied to them; and philosophers need other philosophers, working together through argument, criticism and dialogue, to sustain philosophical search.  He came to these ideas, in part, in dialogue with Heidegger.  Heidegger rejects this view and argues for the loneliness of genuine thought.  Yet he also rejects his own early thinking and christens his change of mind “the turning” (die Kehre).  Thus even in the small space occupied by these two thinkers – two points in thoughtspace – philosophy breaks up into versions, thinkers take up opposite positions, and a thinker unfolds several versions of himself.  Thus there are versions of philosophy because philosophy takes time; thinking needs to reflect on earlier thinking; philosophy breaks up into philosophies because being breaks up into the moments of time. 

Conclusion.  The Relationship between Philosophy and Action

Young Heidegger is a radical voluntarist and old Heidegger is a quietist and thorough determinist.

As a young man, storming the gates, he thought that it was possible for a person to create himself entirely by will, with an intensity of being-toward-death which, in retrospect, matches a generation of young people throwing themselves into war, bringing death and living with death.  Surviving the disaster and unspeakable massacre but also never making a public statement about it, never taking responsibility for anything, never addressing the horror of the war years or the holocaust but instead talking about immense, superhuman forces, such as the history of being or the essence of modern technology, forces that dwarf human effort; at this stage he no longer believes in the power of human agency and claims that human endeavor, as well as philosophy, even philosophy reimagined as “releasement” or meditative thinking, are completely powerless.  “Only a god can save us” and “the only salvation left to us is to prepare readiness for the appearance of the god” and this is “the only thing that we can do” to prevent ourselves from “dying meaningless deaths.”

There is a rebound logic in arrogance followed by despair – a wildly unrealistic, overblown account of a supposedly-wholly-plastic human nature, followed by a wildly unrealistic, self-defeating account of a supposedly-wholly-powerless human nature – overreaching followed by overreaction.  This outcome reestablishes the Socratic baseline – philosophy is about self-examination and trying to escape from ignorance.  Thus we have to see ourselves as we are, neither inflated nor deflated; self-examination needs realism.  Escaping from ignorance requires some psychological sophistication, e.g. to experience, understand and to get some control over the interplay between high spirits and low spirits, the energy of rising and aspiring to the heights and the energy of sinking and coming back down to earth.

The case we are looking at links up philosophy and realism (seeing things) but also philosophy and self-consciousness (seeing oneself) – getting it right (seeing things as they are) and getting a handle (turning knowledge into agency).

Jaspers saw Heidegger as a man enthralled by a powerful spell – hypnotized, even though he was possessed of a wonderful power of mind.  Heidegger needed to be talked down, back to the world where we live and where what we do has effect.  But in order to be talked down, a person has to want to communicate.  Heidegger not only thought of himself as completely alone, but he felt no suffering from it – he had no faith in communication and did not want it – thus as a young person he talks about “anticipatory resoluteness” and “being-towards-death” and as an old man he talked about “the placeholder for nothingness” and “the guardian of being.”

The rebound logic also applies to religious ideas.  Jaspers always felt comfortable talking about religion, god, salvation, faith, but he never took any these ideas as absolute but instead interpreted them as metaphors, as languages of ritual and hope that we can use to talk with other congregants; they are traditions and old ways of expressing the enigmatic situation of Existenz.  Heidegger by contrast ridiculed religious language and even traditional ideas about ethics when he was a young man, and only began talking about god and salvation and preparing for readiness after he had lost all his human faith; by then his otherworldliness became all-powerful.


Jaspers heaped insults upon himself for not seeing what was happening in Germany and rather blamed himself for not talking Heidegger down from his over-the-top enthusiasm than Heidegger.  His nature was more inclined to take blame than to give it, and he called himself out from a too-serene, too-complacent high-mindedness.  After the war, he tried to make a public address on every important issue he was able to think about and tried especially to help Germany find a way through “the question of German guilt.”  He developed a kind of thinking focused on ethics and informed by a spiritual consciousness in which the duty to the Other is the way in which spirituality is called upon to express itself.  This is an ethical consciousness that bears witness and asks hard questions in the face of less-than-human works by less-than-human human beings.  Ethics after the holocaust, the I-Thou relation after the experience of the twentieth century, the nature of human society in the wake of an epoch in which more than 100 million people died in war – these are some of the problems he looked at until his death in 1969.

Jaspers struggled to understand the relation between Heidegger’s philosophy and his actions – his great power of mind and his great failure of judgment – his powerful reading of philosophic history and his dramatic failure to be a friend of philosophy.  It boggles the mind that this amazing thinker, Martin Heidegger, could also be a rank bigot and shameful example of intellectual and moral cowardice.  And in a way this is the same problem we are staring at with all great figures in cultural history who fail to be great men – e.g. Frege, Jung, Francis Bacon, Paul Gauguin.  Macaulay’s essay on Lord Bacon draws out the paradox that many figures from history who have been great teachers and benefactors have also been loathsome human beings – the philosopher in his study is barely recognizable as the man who mingles in the crowd – Lord Bacon, “who first summoned philosophers to the great work of interpreting nature,” was also “among the last men of his country to use the rack” and sell justice to the highest bidder.  Macaulay draws the conclusion that there is as much shame as glory in these kinds of histories, and that Bacon’s human failures have no bearing on his contributions to philosophy.  Realism, in this case, is about seeing everything – the good and the bad.

Jaspers is asking a different kind of question – not looking at philosophy as adding to the sum of knowledge, but understanding philosophy as bound up with action; because philosophy is not fundamentally about getting things right; philosophy is fundamentally about the kind of person I am and what I am up to in the world.  Realism, in this case, is more like what Socrates teaches – i.e., Who am I really?  What do I really know?  Am I just a hapless pawn?  Am I not responsible for myself and accountable for what I do? – Am I not exactly what I think and decide and do?

Jaspers made what is perhaps his greatest contribution to cultural history in his idea of the Axial Age, a period between 900 and 200 BCE, in which the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid down simultaneously and independently in China, India, Israel and Greece.  This is the period of the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah; the Upanishads, Sophocles, Zarathustra and Mo Tzu.  This is “The Great Transformation” in which ancient spiritual traditions turn earthward and teach justice – the origin of the idea that spiritual consciousness shows itself in moral action.

Jaspers thought that the Axial Age represented a kind of atemporal disjunction.  “The Axial Age can be called an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness.” A human being can also become a special site of consciousness – what Jaspers calls a “paradigmatic personality” – someone who exemplifies what a human being can be – a pause between empires.  Jaspers tried to be such a person.

Jaspers’ basic idea is that human beings win some integrity for themselves by facing reality.  The big value that he is trying to uphold is honesty.  Philosophy is a kind of unrelenting honesty and the value of it is that it keeps us real – it helps us stay human – signs of which are that we are open, that we have a sense of the moment, a sense of humor – especially that we are loving, that we go on with love, and not tire of love.  Jaspers’ question about Heidegger, how a philosophy could be true as an intellectual construction but false as a guide to action, gets at Heidegger’s conception of philosophy, his severe attachment to principle and thus otherworldly cast.  Heidegger’s basic orientation is to get back to the beginning – to the primordial, root form.  At the first outset, before we are anything at all, we are entirely potential and can demand virtually anything of ourselves – every path is open – I am free – but I can never leave this primordial otherworld, if I think my freedom in this world requires my destroying the entirety of the past –  it will take up all my energy to destroy everything that I have been – I will never arrive at the present or see what I am doing, here and now, in everyday life with other people in society.

What I am able to see regarding the Heidegger case is this: Heidegger emphasized Being in relation to beings, the Ontological in relation to the ontic, the Authentic in relation to the everyday.  When I read him in my twenties, I thought that he was trying to redirect human attention away from the pointlessness of pop culture and petty political squabbles, to the deep truths of ancient times, reawakened in existentialism, that call upon a person to reach for

greatness.  I saw him as a colleague of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and especially Karl Jaspers – not knowing that Heidegger rejected these thinkers and refused to call himself an existentialist.  I regarded him far above cultural trends and I never believed he would countenance racism.

Today I see that if one’s mind is at a very elevated level and one is preoccupied with grand thoughts that speak to towering vistas and vast aspirations, then what lies directly at one’s feet may well escape one’s attention; and perhaps one becomes too preoccupied with great things to be a good spouse, friend, colleague, teacher, or even a decent human being.  The everyday is cast into the role of the trivial and it becomes possible to become arrogant, unfeeling, dismissing the cries one hears, as if they were of no account.  The Big Truth that one thinks one has gotten hold of has swamped one’s human reactions.  One fails to be a human being with normal feelings,

like caring about injustice or helping someone who is in pain. Countless people, who did not grasp any Big Truth, who had no unheard-of powers of mind, who had virtually no education at all, but who risked their lives and even sacrificed their lives for complete strangers, become giants by contrast. Philosophy itself gets called into question, if towering thinkers like Martin Heidegger can fail so dramatically as human beings.  Philosophers can become hypnotized, become fanatics, and do evil; and even in retrospect they may not find the strength of character to take responsibility for themselves; they may never speak the truth about themselves at all – not even on the condition that we hide away their words until after they are dead.

But perhaps this is not philosophy at all – not philosophy as Socrates imagined it – but instead a kind of puritanical consciousness that always wants to return back to the beginning – to get back to the pure state before any corruption has set in – a cast of mind leading us out of the world rather than a worldly, humane thoughtfulness leading to action.

In political life, in America, for example, we talk about to living up to our ideals, and not to let ourselves become a lesser community, because our enemies chase America off the high ground; and fear takes hold of the leadership, and they are quick to take away people’s rights in the name of national security.  But the big problem may not be that we fail to live up to our ideals.  The big problem may not be about ideals at all, but about us – that, under pressure, we fail to be regular, everyday, normal human beings.  The Big Truth and the Big Lie are equal dangers.  Heidegger shows us some of both – the Big Truth that he saw and that appears to have swamped his human reactions; and the Big Lie to which he lent his authority and that laid waste to so much of the world.  He may have meant to make people bigger; in reality he ended up making them smaller.

In retrospect I see Heidegger as a teacher, but it is just as important to reject him and hold him accountable.  I gain from him, and I see more clearly because of him, from both experiences.  It is part of Jaspers’ greatness that he did not try to make people bigger than they were, or smaller, but instead simply wanted everyone to get a hearing, and he saw his own stature invigorated by trying to do this simple justice; he explicitly called for his readers to reject him, not follow him, but to find their own way.



1919 Psychologie der Weltanschauungen, Berlin: Springer.

1931 Die Geistige Situation der Zeit, Berlin: de Gruyter. Translated as, Man in the Modern Age, trans. E. Paul and C. Paul, London: Routledge, 1933.

1932 Philosophie, Berlin: Springer. Translated as, Philosophy, trans. E. B. Ashton, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1969–1971.

1935 Vernunft und Existenz, Groningen: Wolters. Translated as, Reason and Existenz, trans. W. Earle, New York: Noonday Press, 1955.

1936 Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens, Berlin: de Gruyter. Translated as, Nietzsche: An Introduction to his Philosophical Activity, trans. C. F. Wallraff and F. J. Schmitz, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1965.

1938 Existenzphilosophie, Berlin: de Gruyter. Translated as, Philosophy of Existence, trans. R. F. Grabau, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1971.

1946 Die Schuldfrage, Heidelberg: Schneider. Translated as, The Question of German Guilt, trans. E. B. Ashton, New York: The Dial Press, 1947.

1947 Von der Wahrheit, Munich: Piper.

1949 Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte, Zurich: Artemis. Translated as, The Origin and the Goal of History, trans. M. Bullock, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953.

1954 Die Frage der Entmythologisierug (with Rudolf Bultmann), Munich: Piper. Translated as, Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion without Myth, trans. N. Gutermann, New York: Noonday Press, 1958.

1957 Die Großen Philosophen, volume I, Munich: Piper. Translated as, The Great Philosophers, volume I, trans. R. Manheim, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962.-

1981 Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth, Freedom and Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy, New Haven: Yale University Press.

1986 Ehrlich, Edith, Ehrlich, Leonard H. and Pepper, George B. (eds.), Karl Jaspers: Basic Philosophical Writings, Humanities Paperback Library

1988 Ehrlich, Leonard H. and Wisser, Richard, (eds.), Karl Jaspers Today: Philosophy at the Threshold of the Future, Lanham: University Press of America.

1993 Ehrlich, Leonard H. and Wisser, Richard, (eds.), Karl Jaspers: Philosopher Among Philosophers, K&N/Rodopi.

2004 Kirkbright, Suzanne, Karl Jaspers: A Biography—Navigations in Truth, New Haven: Yale University Press.


1920: Anmerkungen zu Karl Jaspers Psychologie der Weltananschauungen, in Hans Saner, ed., Karl Jaspers in der Diskussion. Munich, Piper, 1973, pp. 70 -100.

1927: Sein und Zeit. Niemeyer, Tübingen; Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962

1936–1968: Erläuterungen zu Hölderlins Dichtung. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 6. erw. A. 1996

1935–1946: Holzwege. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 8. A. 2003

1935/36: Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes. Reclam (UB 8446), Ditzingen 1986

1936–1946: Nietzsche I und II. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 8. A. 2008

1936–1953: Vorträge und Aufsätze. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 10. A. 2004

1938/39: Besinnung. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 1997

1951–1952: Was heißt Denken? Reclam (UB 8805), Ditzingen 1992

1953: Die Technik und die Kehre. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2002

1919–1961: Wegmarken. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2004

1955–1956: Der Satz vom Grund. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 9. A. 2006

1955–1957: Identität und Differenz. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 12. A. 2002

1950–1959: Unterwegs zur Sprache. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 14. A. 2007

1959: Gelassenheit. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 14. A. 2008

1910–1976: Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens. Klostermann, Frankfurt am Main 2. durchges. A. 2002–

1919 / Towards the definition of Philosophy.  The Idea of Philosophy and the Problem of Worldview.  Phenomenology and Transcendental Philosophy of Value.  Freiburg Courses 1919, translated by Ted Sadler. New York: Continuum.

1927 / 1962 Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson

1929/1997 Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, translated by R. Taft, Bloomington: Indiana U Press

1959 Discourse on Thinking, translated by J. Anderson and E. Hans Freund, New York: Harper & Row, 1966

1968 What is Called Thinking?, translated by F. D. Wieck and J. Glenn Gray, New York: Harper & Row

1971  “The Thing”, translated by A. Hofstadter, in Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper & Row

1976 “?‘Only a God can Save Us’: Der Spiegel’s Interview with Martin Heidegger”, Der Spiegel, May 31st, 1976. Translated by M. O. Alter and J. D. Caputo; also published in Philosophy Today XX(4/4): 267–285.

1993  “Building Dwelling Thinking”, translated by A. Hofstadter, in D. F. Krell (ed.) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, revised and expanded edition, London: Routledge, pp. 217–65.

1993  “Letter on Humanism”, translated by F. A Capuzzi and J. Glenn Gray, in D. F. Krell (ed.) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, revised and expanded edition, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 217–65.

1993  R. Wolin (ed.), The Heidegger Controversy: a Critical Reader, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993

1993  “On the Essence of Truth”, translated by John Sallis, in D. F. Krell (ed.) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, revised and expanded edition, London: Routledge, pp. 115–38.

1993 “The Question Concerning Technology”, translated by W. Lovitt with revisions by D. F. Krell, in D. F. Krell (ed.) Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 311–41.

1993 “The Self-Assertion of the German University”, translated by W. S. Lewis, in R. Wolin (ed.), in The Heidegger Controversy: a Critical Reader, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 29–39.

2002  Martin Heidegger: Supplements, edited by John van Buren, “Comments on Karl Jaspers’ Psychology of Worldviews,” translated by John van Buren, pp. 71 – 103, SUNY Press.

other works consulted

Aristotle, De Anima; On Philosophy

Jean Beaudrillard, The System of Objects, translated by James Benedict, Verso, 1996

Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, translated by John Raffan, Basil Blackwell, 1985

Walter Burkert, Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis, Harvard, 2004

Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, Belknap, 1988

Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, Columbia University Press, 1991

Han Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Continuum, 1975

Jürgen Habermas, Postmetaphysical Thinking, translated by William Mark Hohengarten, MIT, 1993

G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History

Mary Hesse, The Structure of Scientific Inference, Macmillian, 1974

Leszek Ko?akowski, Metaphysical Horror, Basil Blackwell, 1988

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays and Poems, A.L. Burt, 1823

Gita Mehta, Snakes and Ladders, Anchor, 1997

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, Vintage, 1967

Plato, Apology, Cratylus

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge, 1963

Herbert Schnädelbach, Vernunft und Geschichte, Suhrkamp, 1987

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Allen & Unwin, 1943

Tsenay Serequeberhan, African Philosophy: The Essential Readings, Paragon, 1991

Leo Strauss, What is Political Philosophy?, Westport, 1973

Ernst Tugenhadt, Self-Consciousness and Self-Determination, translated by Paul Stern, MIT, 1986

Fung Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Free Press, 1948