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  • Edmund Husserl’s Influence on Karl Jaspers’s Phenomenology
  • Osborne P. Wiggins (bio) and Michael Alan Schwartz (bio)

Karl Jaspers’s phenomenology remains important today, not solely because of its continuing influence in some areas of psychiatry, but because, if fully understood, it can provide a method and set of concepts for making new progress in the science of psychopathology. In order to understand this method and set of concepts, it helps to recognize the significant influence that Edmund Husserl’s early work, Logical investigations, exercised on Jaspers’s formulation of them. We trace the Husserlian influence while clarifying the main components of Jaspers’s method. Jaspers adopted Husserl’s notions of intuition, description, and presuppositionlessness, transforming them when necessary in order to serve the investigations of the psychopathologist. Jaspers also took over from Wilhelm Dilthey and others the tools of understanding (Verstehen) and self-transposal. The Diltheyian procedures were integrated into the Husserlian ones to produce a method that enables psychiatrists to define the basic kinds of psychopathological mental states.


Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, phenomenology, psychopathology, method, intuition, description, and presuppositionlessness

Introduction: Why Karl Jaspers’s Phenomenology Today?

Karl Jaspers portrayed “the phenom-enological approach in psychopathology” primarily in two places, first in a 1912 essay bearing precisely that title (Jaspers 1963a, 314–28; 1968), and a year later in 1913 in his monumental book, General psychopathology (Jaspers 1965, 47–49; 1963b, 55–57). He also applied his phenomenological approach in concrete studies of psychopathological conditions (Jaspers 1963a). Jaspers’s conception of phenomenology has exercised considerable influence on psychiatry, in Germany certainly but in several other European countries as well (Spiegelberg 1972). When M. Shepherd and O. L. Zangwill published their encyclopedic Handbook of psychiatry in England, they entitled the first volume General psychopathology out of respect for the lasting impact of Jaspers’s book (Shepherd and Zangwill 1983). In the United States Paul R. McHugh and Phillip R. Slavney continue to develop the Jaspersian legacy (McHugh and Slavney 1986; Slavney and McHugh 1987).

Recently, however, some authors have posed important questions regarding the correct way to interpret Jaspers’s phenomenology (Spitzer 1988, 6–10; Langenbach 1995). G. E. Berrios and Chris Walker have raised doubts about the prior consensus that Jaspers’s phenomenology owed much to Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology (Berrios 1989; 1993; Walker 1988; 1994a; 1994b; 1995a; 1995b). After criticizing this earlier way of reading Jaspers, Berrios and Walker offer differing and novel interpretations of his phenomenology [End Page 15] (Berrios 1992; Walker 1993a; 1993b). We agree with the earlier way of understanding Jaspers, primarily as set forth by Michael Shepherd (Shepherd 1990) and Herbert Spiegelberg (Spiegelberg 1972, 173–191); and we disagree with Berrios’s and Walker’s contentions that Jaspers did not in fact derive much of his phenomenology from Husserl (Wiggins, Schwartz, and Spitzer 1992; 1996). In this essay we have set ourselves two tasks. We would like (1) to demonstrate the respects in which Husserl’s views did influence Jaspers’s and (2) to present an exposition of Jaspers’s phenomenology as, we suggest, he himself conceived it. We think that neither one of these tasks has been sufficiently performed by other authors. Our earlier essay, “Chris Walker’s Interpretation of Karl Jaspers’s Phenomenology: A Critique,” was polemical: we argued there against the acceptability of Walker’s reading of Jaspers. The present essay is exegetical: we seek here to understand Jaspers accurately, including understanding his debt to Husserl.

Our main hope is that, once Jaspers’s phenomenology is fully understood, its relevance for the issues confronting present-day psychopathology can be appreciated. Jaspers’s phenomenology provides both a method and a set of substantive concepts for defining the main groups of mental states with which psychopathology is concerned. We submit that his phenomenology, if critically applied and extended in descriptions of psychopathological states, can take us significantly beyond what is presently available in DSM-IV and other standard reference books in psychiatry (Schwartz and Wiggins 1992).

It should be noted, however, that Jaspers’s method stands in need of further development and even modification. A method similar to Jaspers’s, first developed by W. Dilthey, G. Simmel, and M. Weber...

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