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  • Jaspers on the Intersection of Philosophy and Psychiatry
  • Leonard H. Ehrlich (bio)

Jaspers, psychopathology, philosophy of science, pluralism, psychiatry

Nassir Ghaemi has been involved in mastering the substance and import of Jaspers's work in psychopathology and psychology for many years. His book Concepts of Psychiatry (2003), from which Ghaemi's article to this issue of Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology is excerpted, attests to his insight into the intersection of psychiatry and philosophy, and Jaspers's signal contribution in this regard. Roughly, Jaspers's work can be said to have two aspects to this intersection: first, a critical methodology of psychopathological and psychological research, and, second, philosophical reflections on the question "what is man?"1 Both aspects inform the last edition of General Psychopathology (1963), Jaspers's main work in the relevant field, and the only one fully translated into English. Although Ghaemi discusses both aspects in his book and in the article, he concentrates on the former, on the question of Jaspers's 'philosophy of science'. Working with Jaspers on the intersection of psychiatry and philosophy presents the researcher with considerable problems. Ghaemi is to be credited with achieving success despite the problems. Let me discuss some of these problems.

First, we are dealing with two languages, both of which, but each in its own way, demand precision of thought and of thought elements (e.g., terms). The task of the translator, whether from German to English or vice versa, is unenviable. Thus, the reader who is dependent on the English translation of General Psychopathology by Hoenig and Hamilton faces a handicap, which the translators acknowledge. Writing their "Translators' Preface" in the early 1960s, they not only observe that "modern clinical psychiatry is still largely based on the achievements of continental psychiatrists," but report that they "were not able to get much help from translations of Jaspers's philosophical works" nor from colleagues with orientations that, at that time, predominated in British philosophy departments (Jaspers 1963, vii, viii). Hoenig and Hamilton often inform the reader of these difficulties by means of adding the German original to their translated section titles.

Is Verstehen a Science?

One of the main problems Ghaemi faces in his article is the question of whether verstehende psychology is a science. The insuperable difficulty [End Page 75] lies in that 'Wissenschaft' can only be translated as 'science', but the way these terms are used in their respective languages differs. In recent usage, especially on the part of philosophers of science, 'science' refers to methodical research into inanimate or animate nature. Moreover, philosophers of science of the last century, whether German or English, have tended to regard measurable and mathematizable reality as the standard object of true 'science', as practiced especially in physics. Significantly, they have had little to say about biological fields. And by and large they have discounted thought that is a matter of Verstehen, whether history or verstehende psychology, as cognitively significant areas of science (e.g., see Popper, Hempel).

In German, 'Wissenschaft' refers to any area of critical, methodical inquiry, whether into realms of nature or not. To the English speaker, it may sound strange that in German Wissenschaft includes theology and musicology no less than astronomy and microbiology. (Perhaps it would be more useful to translate the word as 'disciplined inquiry'.) Because of that inclusiveness, Jaspers characterizes Wissenschaft by means of three marks that underlie both the natural sciences and the human studies. Jaspers mention those marks very briefly in General Psychopathology, and Ghaemi refers to them; Jaspers elaborates on them in other works. Ghaemi correctly stresses that the mark of "universal validity" is not to be taken as a pattern to which scientific cognition must conform. Instead, it is an aim of scientific work for it to be accepted as sound and true by anyone capable of following its procedure, and thus functions as a standard against which results of research are measured. To phrase it more concretely: A psychiatric finding has to be capable of being recognized as 'valid' by qualified peers.


The mark of "cogency" (German: zwingende Gewissheit, literally "compelling certainty") is also an aim rather than an attribute of scientific cognition. In the natural sciences, what is...


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