Pointing out the limits of knowledge
What remains of Karl Jaspers today? A commitment to thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries and forging links between academic perspectives, according to Oldenburg intellectual historian Matthias Bormuth. In the interview Bormuth talks about the plans of the Karl-Jaspers-Gesellschaft, Jaspers‘ outsider view on science – and why it is still valuable today.
Herr Bormuth, Karl Jaspers' library has found a new home in the Karl-Jaspers-Haus in Oldenburg, and you are one of the people working there. What are your first impressions?
BORMUTH: It's exciting to carry out my research with this library. It has already meant, in terms of the history of ideas, that I have been able to trace Jaspers' readings of Hölderlin right back to their origins, so to speak. His markings and comments in the poems hint at how he understood the philosophising poet's work. Now, both young and more experienced scholars will have the opportunity to conduct their research in Oldenburg, using the very sources of Jaspers' work.
The building already has two apartments for so-called “Jaspers Fellows” – who will for example present their research to the public at lecture evenings?
BORMUTH: That was the idea of the newly founded Jaspers-Gesellschaft. We hope to be able to raise the necessary funds through donations. Essentially we want to stimulate discussion at the Jaspers-Haus about questions which, like Jaspers' own work, lie between disciplines and are also of interest to wider audiences. This will mean developing formats that are clearly understandable and stimulating. Here Jaspers also led the way: he was able to express his ideas so clearly and compellingly that even radio and TV approached him.
How do you plan to achieve this?
BORMUTH: Well, in time we want to offer lectures, conferences and publications that bring academic discussion into the public realm. Together with the Deutsches Literaturarchiv in Marbach we are thinking about how best to use the library's lobby to introduce visitors – particularly school children and student groups – to Jaspers' books and life in a way that is as interactive as possible. As for the lecture evenings, the plan is to invite solidly unconventional thinkers, writers, academics or essayists who have something to say to society that is unfashionably substantial and provocative – frequently because their views transcend disciplinary boundaries.
Reading your CV – psychiatrist, medical ethicist, professor of the history of ideas – you also seem to be someone who moves among disciplines.
BORMUTH: I did in fact start out with medicine and then I moved into psychiatry after reading Jaspers for the first time during my studies. I wanted to understand the inner structures and dynamics of the mentally ill – until my continued engagement with Jaspers' philosophical writings led me to ask: what is it that drives “healthy” people, what ideas about their life and past do they develop in borderline situations? This question later prompted me to look into the suicidal thoughts of Paul Celan, Ingeborg Bachman and Jean Améry. In this sort of research you necessarily move between philosophy, psychiatry, sociology and literary studies. On a path between disciplines like this, it is particularly important to maintain an exchange of ideas with specialists.
So the historian of ideas is also a networker?
BORMUTH: Yes, conversations and letters almost automatically turn into personal connections and not infrequently develop into closer acquaintances and friendships that in turn create new connections. You take on the integrating role of the “university dilettante”, who is loosely woven into the net of experts and who, of course, also needs pointers from fellow academics who are accustomed to forging meaningful links between the various perspectives of scholarship. My meetings with American "intellectual historians" were extremely helpful in this respect.
How did you discover Jaspers?
BORMUTH: What clinched it was that after I had started reading Jaspers, I went to Basel to visit his last assistant, Hans Saner, and there he was, surrounded by the books of his teacher. At the time I never could have imagined that, twenty years later, I would have the great privilege of working with this library every day in Oldenburg as a researcher. It has a very special meaning for my own path between medicine and philosophy.
In what way?
BORMUTH: Hannah Arendt, who studied philosophy under Jaspers, poses the question in an essay about what happens when we think, and where we are when we are thinking. The library can suggest this imaginary space, and materialise it at the same time, especially when the rooms are as lovely as these. Jaspers saw himself in dialogue with the great philosophers and their ideas, from Plato and St. Augustine to Kant and Hegel. He saw himself as a thinker who had an impact on his time, but who did not belong exclusively to it. And yet his library shows how much Jaspers valued current truths, which he observed in a broad spectrum of empirical scientific fields. To “communicate” across time with the great philosophers and yet be in dialogue with the sciences, those were his maxims as creative reader.
To be in dialogue with the sciences, that is also one of the aims of the Jaspers Gesellschaft. Do you – as a former physician – already have plans to work together with the new young medical students at the University?
BORMUTH: This invitation came from Jaspers himself, who wrote a number of philosophical essays for physicians. My experience in Tübingen taught me how important it is for medical students to familiarise themselves with humanities texts. Seminars and workshops can stimulate them to pursue their own path of thinking, as was Kant's wish for every mature individual. And physicians, more than most, move in sensitive political, cultural and ethical problem areas which often also demand powers of judgment schooled by philosophy.
Are there any beginnings or examples of this yet?
BORMUTH: As one would expect considering my clinical background, I have kept up a dialogue with psychiatrists and psychotherapists over many years. We work together organising symposiums and continuing-education seminars. This coming autumn, for the centenary of Jaspers' “General Psychopathology”, we have invited leading names in German psychiatry to come to Oldenburg and Bremen. The conference will examine Jaspers' relevance for psychiatry today.
How would you sum up Jaspers' legacy?
BORMUTH: As with every thinker, Jasper had certain thoughts which have not stood the test of time. But also theories that continue to challenge us and keep us thinking. I am particularly fascinated by his Kantian concept of freedom, which is about implementing freedom in the best way possible. This is evident in the way he dealt with his own lung disease, which prevented him from doing practical work. Jaspers concentrated on the “inner activities” of the philosopher and wrested a long and theoretical life from his body. And so it happened that right into the eighth and ninth decade of his life he was the most talked about political philosopher in West Germany and, through Hannah Arendt, his fame also stretched to the USA. At that stage Jaspers rarely left his apartment in Basel any more, but his thoughts travelled the world for him.
His physical illness had a philosophical advantage?
BORMUTH: Exactly. His professional exclusion from psychiatry began when Jaspers' illness left him very few opportunities to take part in everyday clinic life, but gave him plenty of time for thinking, reading and talking to his patients. His illness forced him to take on the role of the engaged observer, whose insights have benefited psychiatry ever since. When it came to philosophy, his physical borderline situation also obliged him to live a sheltered life of thought. Jaspers described himself as an “outsider” who enjoyed the “fool's licence” in the philosophical establishment. Until, that is, it became clear that he had brought existential questions from psychiatry to the philosophical field, prompting new ideas about man and his potential freedom.
And what did you find so fascinating about this?
BORMUTH: That in the name of potential freedom Jaspers opposed all objective reductionism and educational dogma. Jaspers believed that the philosopher should be a recalcitrant contemporary who, in the spirit of Socrates, shows us the limits of knowledge. It's no coincidence that the young Jaspers attracted attention at secondary school for refusing to join a pupil association. He preferred to stand as an individual, at a distance from collective opinion makers. He can still inspire us today to pause for a moment and think about what we are really doing, what the point of our action is, and where we want it to take us.