Reading Obscure Jaspers I: A Forgotten Existentialist, A History Boy, 01/10/2014

I usually read multiple books at once, as well as whatever I’m working on for my schooling, when I’m in a program, like the one I’m in right now. It does make for full days, but I largely don’t stop feeding my brain. 

So in addition to the detailed notes and reactions to Nozick’s classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia, I’m reading another philosophy book just for general pleasure, although it’s just as stimulating. It’s an unusual book, because it’s actually kind of obscure to someone who’s gone through an education in philosophy. 

Karl Jaspers stares at you provocatively.
Karl Jaspers was well-known in his time, and in the Weimar era and post-war years of Germany was widely considered a rival to Martin Heidegger in German existentialism. Because the German university system of philosophy in those years was such a small and intimate club, Heidegger and Jaspers knew each other. They offered incredibly different takes on the basic existentialist idea, to the extent that they were philosophical rivals for the early part of their careers in the discipline and became bitter rivals when Heidegger came to support the Nazi movement so enthusiastically.

Jaspers himself was married to a Jewish woman, and managed to avoid death at the hands of the Gestapo or another chaotically overlapping security service by a combination of general respect, a host of influential personal connections, and sheer fantastic luck. 

Philosophically, Jaspers is actually much more akin to my own approaches to the discipline than Heidegger ever was. Heidegger considered philosophy to function only when it was pure, untouched by other disciplines, as all other modes of knowledge had been corrupted by the technological way of living which saw all around us as potential resources. There are moments when I read Jaspers when he says the same of modern rationality, that it makes us think of the world only instrumentally, and that this is a dangerous attitude, especially given our current technological powers.

But Jaspers himself was a psychologist before beginning to write in philosophy, and pioneered many of the biographical methods of psychological assessment that remain influential today. When he entered philosophy, he took ideas from many different disciplines to build his concepts, especially from sociology, thanks to his close relationships with German pioneers of that field such as Max Weber. 

As someone who has been influenced by theorists (really philosophers) from sociological backgrounds, and who has close friends in that discipline, I can most certainly understand why Jaspers would have found that field so stimulating for thought.

All that being said, I suppose I should say exactly which book by Jaspers I’m reading. Well, my own decision came to me in a moment in my Communications program a couple of weeks ago. The program chair, Andy Coxhead, likes to keep us on our toes in a variety of interesting ways, one of which is regularly quizzing us about what’s in the news of the day. It’s an obligation of the profession of professional communications that you keep up on current events so you can scan for any events that may affect your actual work. 

In response to one of these inquiries, one of the other students in the class spoke about some of the recent developments in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Putin’s standoff over his Grand Old Empire games with the European Union, United States, and United Nations. She mentioned a curious phrase that most of us in my generation thought we’d never hear spoken seriously, which older generations had lived with as a matter of course.

She said there might be a nuclear shooting war over this.

Now, we all like to imagine that no one would ever think about using nuclear weapons. The very thought of it seems absolutely insane to us. No rational leader of a modern state would ever actually use the arsenals that were amassed over the 20th century — they’re capable of destroying all life on Earth. We consider nuclear weapons something to be used by fanatics, those we consider insane with the irrational and anti-rational beliefs of religious fervour. These are the types of people who would sincerely believe that an apocalypse in nuclear fire could return God to Earth, or some such horrifying nonsense.

I picked up my only book by Karl Jaspers in a book giveaway at the McMaster Philosophy department. These free books weren’t being given to the Wilson Library room at the department,* but instead simply given to whoever wanted them. I wanted them. So I took them.

* Honestly, if they had stayed in the Wilson Library, I doubt they would have ended up being read. It’s wonderful to have all these books, but students aren’t allowed to take them out of the room. Without a genuine loaning system so people can devote time to the collection on their own, no one bothers to read them.

That’s how I ended up with Karl Jaspers’ The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man. To be continued . . . 

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