Karl Jaspers's Way to Wisdom

Karl Jaspers’s Way to Wisdom

Karl Jaspers’s Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy (1951) is an essay which deals with such questions as what is philosophy, what are the sources of philosophy, and what are the aims of philosophy.

Jaspers says that philosophy differs from science in that it may not provide concrete, definitive knowledge.1 What philosophy strives for is not a scientific certainty about particular objects or phenomena but an awareness of the whole of being and an awareness of our place in the world. Everyone is capable of making philosophical judgments. Each person must decide his or her own philosophy. Philosophy is an activity which everyone participates in, either consciously or unconsciously.

The term “philosophy” comes from the Greek word philosophia, meaning “love of wisdom.” Wisdom is different from knowledge. Philosophy is not a body of knowledge, but is a mode of activity or a method of investigation. Jaspers argues that those who believe that they understand everything are no longer engaged in philosophical inquiry.

According to Jaspers, philosophy does not need to justify itself on the grounds of its being useful for some other mode of activity.2 Philosophy is a search for truth, and is an attempt to communicate this search to all of humankind. Philosophy is an expression of the universal aims of human society.

Jaspers notes that the Stoic philosopher Epictetus says that philosophy has its source in situations which cause us to be aware of our own weakness and helplessness.3 Jaspers calls such ultimate situations “boundary situations” (Grenzsituationen). These ultimate situations such as death, suffering, guilt, wonder, and doubt are situations which we cannot avoid or change. We may try to avoid these situations in everyday life, but if we confront them, then we become truly aware of ourselves as human beings, and we become ourselves by a change in our consciousness of being. Thus, for Jaspers, the source of philosophy is found in “boundary situations” such as death, uncertainty, wonder, and doubt. However, these situations also require us to communicate with each other. Thus, the ultimate source of philosophy is the will to authentic communication. Communication is the major aim of philosophy.4

What is being? According to Jaspers, being is "Comprehensive," it transcends the dichotomy of subject and object. By asking ourselves what is the nature of being, we may try to stand apart from being and may try to see being as something which confronts us as an object, but being as a whole includes the being of the thinking subject. Even if we try to become the objects of our own thinking, then we are still subjects who may determine the objectness of all objects.5 Jaspers notes that Schopenhauer says that there is no object without a subject and no subject without an object.6 But according to Jaspers, the Comprehensive transcends the subject-object dichotomy and is a union of subject and object.

Who or what is God? Jaspers explains that some philosophers have offered logical proofs of the existence of God, while other philosophers have argued that if all proofs of the existence of God can be refuted, then there is no God.7 Jaspers rejects both of these positions, and argues that the existence of God can neither be proved nor be disproved. The supposed proofs and disproofs of God's existence treat God as an object and are therefore invalid. These proofs and disproofs are only attempts to achieve subjective certainty through the use of fallacious modes of reasoning.

According to Jaspers, we cannot make God an object of our knowledge. We cannot know God, but can only believe in God. Belief in God requires faith. Freedom is the source of faith, and our freedom comes from God. True awareness of freedom prodices certainty of the existence of God. Faith in God is not the same as knowledge of God, but we may gain a clarity of insight through philosophy which may enable us to have a Comprehensive consciousness of God.8

Jaspers argues that we cannot know our own existence objectively. The nature of our existence transcends objective inquiry. We are part of, and thus cannot be objective about, our own existence. Human existence is endowed with a freedom which is inaccessible to objective inquiry. Through our freedom to make choices we may become authentically aware of ourselves. To try to deny this freedom is to deny our own exitence. Existence brings freedom, and thus we cannot escape the responsibility for making free choices.

This concept of existence appears, to some extent, to be paradoxical. On the one hand, human existence may be viewed as an object of inquiry, because the characteristics and qualities of a human individual may, to some extent, be objectively knowable. On the other hand, human existence may have a freedom which is inaccessible to objective inquiry. Jaspers views the human individual both as an entity (i.e. an existent) and as a condition (i.e. an existence). We may gain objective knowledge of an individual as an existent, but we cannot reduce an individual’s existence to the status of an object of inquiry. For Jaspers, human existence transcends the subject-object dichotomy. Human existence produces an awareness of the Comprehensive.

Jaspers argues that in boundary situations we may perceive either being or nothingness. Both being and nothingness may transcend the subject-object dichotomy. Why then should we choose being and not nothingness? Why should we make choices responsibly? According to Jaspers, we become ourselves by choosing between being and nothingness. If we choose being, then we achieve authentic selfhood. If we choose nothingness, then we deny our true selves.

Jaspers argues that the concept of human freedom without God, in which the will to make free choices is perceived as if it were independent of God, is a concept of nothingness. If we acknowledge that we depend on God for our being, and if we accept responsibility for making our own free choices, then our awareness of our own freedom becomes an awareness of God.


1Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, translated by Ralph Manheim (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954), p. 7.
2Ibid., p. 15.
3Ibid., p. 19.
4Ibid., p. 27.
5Ibid., p. 29.
6Ibid., p. 30.
7Ibid., p. 42.
8Ibid., p. 46.


Jaspers, Karl. Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. Translated by Ralph manheim. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954.

Copywright© 2000AlexScott

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