Jaspers, Karl

Jaspers, Karl
   Jaspers was born in Oldenburg in northern Germany, studied law, qualified in medicine in 1908 at Heidelberg, then from 1908 to 1915 served as a part-time assistant at the Heidelberg psychiatric clinic under Franz Nissl; he worked only part-time because he had bronchiectasis and avoided a demanding schedule. In the psychiatric clinic, he did research on psychological testing and blood pressure. However, Jaspers’s commitment to psychiatry was brief. At the clinic, his interests inclined increasingly to psychology, doing his Habilitation in that subject in 1913, as well as to philosophy. In 1920, he received an appointment in philosophy at Heidelberg, becoming chair of the department (Ordinarius) in 1922. Under National Socialism, in 1937 he was forced to retire because his wife, whom he refused to divorce, was Jewish; in 1943, he was forbidden to publish further; and in 1945, he was reinstated in the Chair at Heidelberg. In 1948, he became Chair (Ordinarius) of the philosophy department in Basel, from which post he retired in 1961. Thus, Jaspers is thought of primarily as a philosopher, yet his early contributions to psychiatry were of great importance.
   His 1910 paper on delusional jealousy (Eifersuchtswahn) in the Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie (see Paranoia) brought into psychiatry the distinction of German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey (pronounced DIL-tai) (1833–1911) between rational ways of knowing things, in this case knowing patients’ symptoms, and empathic (einfühlbar) ways. The rational grasping of causal relationships Jaspers called—in Dilthey’s terms—"explaining" (begreifen—also sometimes called erklären). This was in contrast to the intuitive feeling of one’s way into a patient’s subjective world and called "understanding" (verstehen). "When we look at psychic life we have two pathways: We try to put ourselves in the other’s shoes, we feel our way into the person (verstehen). Or we observe individual elements of the phenomenon in their relationship and causal order, . . . explaining without necessarily achieving empathy. We limit ourselves to ‘explaining’ (begreifen), as when we explain relationships in the physical world, in the sense that we think of an objective underlying process, a ‘physical’ one or an ‘unconscious’ one, where nature has inherently determined that we cannot empathize our way into it" (p. 602).
   In the case of pathological jealousy, for example, verstehen would permit the physician to perceive psychologically that jealousy had always been part of the patient’s personality development. Yet, if the jealousy had come out of the blue, as part of the onset of a sudden brain-disease process, the more rational act of begreifen would be appropriate. This distinction between the contemplation of causes and intuitiveness had a large impact on psychiatry: understanding implied to see meaning in motivated behavior, to understand (verstehen) "how affects arise out of certain moods," compared to the explaining (begreifen) of causal analysis, how memory loss or fatigue occur. Jaspers later wrote in his autobiography (1977) of applying these distinctions in practice at Heidelberg: "We distinguished on the one hand the patient’s biographical course as the development of his personality that evolved in an understandable way through the phases of life; and on the other the processes that might cause a person to become dramatically different in a wrenching break, for reasons that we considered to be organic without really knowing what they were" (p. 20). Later, followers of Jaspers talked about "life history" vs. "case history."
   As a result of having already written several penetrating essays, in 1911 Jaspers was asked by his colleague Karl Wilmanns (see Heidelberg) (and by the Springer Publishers) to undertake a general textbook of psychopathology. Published in 1913, the year in which Jaspers received his Habilitation in psychology, General Psychopathology (Allgemeine Psychopathologie) would become the single most influential text in psychopathology, although Jaspers was not the originator of the term. The book went through a number of editions, Jaspers completing the ultimate version in 1942 with the help of Kurt Schneider but not allowed to publish it until 1946. The most recent reprint of this 1946 version came out in 1973 as the "ninth edition." The English translation of Jaspers’s book was greatly delayed, and only in 1962 did Jan Hoenig and Marian Hamilton bring out the seventh edition as General Psychopathology. It remains the classic guide to the study of psychopathology.

Edward Shorter. 2014.

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