Karl Jaspers #ChoosePsychiatry


Dr Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was a German Psychiatrist who fundamentally transformed Psychiatric practice through philosophical inquiry. He had initially worked with Franz Nissl and then took up a position in philosophy at Heidelberg University. In his own words (or at least the translation)

There is nothing that we can, so to speak, take over ‘ready-made’, but philosophical studies undoubtedly exercise a certain restraining influence of their own‘ (1, p6)

Jaspers identified the problems that needed to be solved at the time of the first publication of his book in 1913

There is a recurrent demand for some unified terminology in psychology and psychopathology and the difficulty lies not in the words so much as in the actual concepts themselves. If only our concepts were clear, there would be no problem of terminology. As it is, to create a scientific terminology at this juncture by setting up some committee or other appears quite impracticable‘ (1, p35).

Jaspers references philosophers such as Kant and Goethe as well as earlier Psychiatrists such as Freud, Jung, Bleuler and Kraeplin. His approach is comprehensive including the full range of inner experiences through to the various factors which impact on these same experiences. These factors that he references includes neurological, endocrine, metabolic, genetic and environmental. Jaspers also emphasises the importance of biography

The biography always concerns a single and unique human life and sees it embedded in an all-embracing set of temporal connections, biologically in its heredity, psychologically in its family, community and society and culturally in an objective tradition of values‘ (2, p672)

Although Engel is considered to be the first to use the term biopsychosocial model, the above quotation can be considered as an even earlier reference to this concept.  Jaspers finishes this important work by considering the human being ‘as a whole’, echoing Johann Reil, the founder of Psychiatry.

It is also useful to note that by 1913 the International Causes of Death was in its second revision and that the International Classification of Diseases would be presented in 1938. Therefore the international system for classification of diseases did not yet exist at the time this book was written. However Jaspers references a number of theories of mental illness at the time from established and prominent academics who had undertaken research in this area. Carl Jaspers has had a profound influence on Psychiatry.


(1) General Psychopathology. Volume I. Karl Jaspers. Translated by J.Hoenig and Marian W.Hamilton. 1997. (First Edition 1913 in German)

(2) General Psychopathology. Volume II. Karl Jaspers. Translated by J.Hoenig and Marian W.Hamilton. 1997. (First Edition 1913 in German)

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