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Karl Jaspers : The "Psychopathology" of Genius

Dernière mise à jour : 1 mai 2023

Extracts from :

Psychopathology and the Modern Age. Karl Jaspers Reads Hölderlin

by Matthias Bormuth

"At the beginning of 1888, Nietzsche described the new fashion for discrediting unusual thinking as an expression of illness, exactly a year before he himself was overcome by mental illness in Turin:

“But a man is constantly paying for holding such an isolated position by an isolation which becomes every day more complete, more icy, and more cutting. ... They are now getting out of the difficulty with such words as ‘eccentric’, ‘pathological’, ‘psychiatric’”.

Several years earlier in the first essay of his Untimely Meditations he had already struck out against the conservative educated classes, positing the huge value of psychopathology over psychological well-being in the quest for deeper knowledge:

“For it is a cruel fact that ‘the spirit’ is accustomed most often to descend upon the ‘unhealthy and unprofitable’, and on those occasions when he is honest with himself even the philistine is aware that the philosophies his kind produce and bring to market are in many ways spiritless, though they are of course extremely healthy and profitable.”

The target of his attacks was the “cultural philistine” of the Gründerjahre who had a tendency to try to ignore points of view that he considered uncomfortable and unusual, and to therefore brand them as pathological:

"Finally he invents for his habits, modes of thinking, likes and dislikes, the general formula ‘healthiness’, and dismisses the ever uncomfortable disturber of the peace as being sick or neurotic.”

It is no accident that Nietzsche responded by taking a stand for “the memory of the glorious Hölderlin,” distinguishing him from the others as a “non-philistine” with the ironic question as to “whether he would have been able to find his way in the present great age”.


Friedrich Nietzsche

("The ill Nietzsche", by Hans Olde, 1899)

Jaspers’ pathography of Nietzsche emphasizes both the productive and the destructive effects of psychopathology. It forms part of the 1936 study Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity.

Jaspers writes:

“The ‘sick’ factors not only ... were of a disturbing nature, but may even have made possible what would otherwise not have eventuated.”

Accordingly the pathography depicts Nietzsche as a herald and interpreter of the modern “experience of world crisis”, who suffered immeasurably as a result, and whose pathologically induced insights took him to unattainable heights and plunged him into absurd depths.

Jaspers’ assessment correlates with his philosophically ambivalent verdict of Nietzsche’s work :

“He has a capacity for stirring us deeply, awakening our most essential impulses, intensifying our earnestness, and illuminating our insights; but that does not prevent him from repeatedly giving the impression of failing, of plunging into a void, as it were, of having an oppressive effect through narrowness, immoderation and absurdities.”

Jaspers observes the artists Van Gogh and Hölderlin primarily and almost exclusively under the productive influence of the psychological process, which continued right up to the point of mental breakdown. He considered them exceptional artists whose psychological abnormality, paired with their talent, was fundamental to their deeply profound work.

“Here we have not only a productivity exaggerated through tension, a productivity which also leads to the discovery of new approaches which then tend to enrich the general artistic expression; rather, new forces come into being which gain objective form, forces which, within themselves mental, are neither healthy nor sick but thrive on the soil of illness.”

Essentially, Jaspers’ openness to considering psychological unusualness as a productive element of intellectual life stemmed directly from his early days in Heidelberg with Max Weber, who remained the point of reference for Jaspers’ thinking throughout most of his life. Weber called into question the dominant paradigm of degeneration on the grounds that it was based on cultural judgements and not only natural facts.

Max Weber, 1918

Weber himself believed that psychologically and socially marginal figures possessed significant potential for the development of society:

“The evidence of ethnology seems rather to show that the most important source of innovation has been the influence of individuals who have experienced certain ‘abnormal’ states (which are frequently, but not always, regarded by present-day psychiatry as pathological) and hence have been capable of exercising a special influence on others.”

This was also the perspective from which Jaspers observed Weber’s own psychological illness, which consigned him to the margins of academic life. He saw Weber’s illness as the productive motor of his creative understanding of the demystified and spiritually disjointed lebenswelt of the twentieth century.

As he write in his late notes:

“Max Weber’s illness, no coincidence ? ... his philosophical understanding has deepened, broadening his view immeasurably. What would he be without the illness ?”

His notes place the brilliant scientist, who struggled with psychiatric problems for many years and teetered on the brink of suicide a number of times, within the context of sick thinkers and poets who were constitutive for the existential understanding of the modern age.

“Is illness a prerequisite for the deepest insights ? Kierkegaard, Nietzsche ? Hölderlin ?”

For Jaspers, in other words, the sick artist and thinker pays a price for his intellectual radicality, which springs from the bedrock of psychological disorder. He is unable to take refuge under the shelter of normality and is condemned to perceive the mental chaos of the time with his senses wide open. This will take him to the limits of his endurance and often far beyond.

The normal citizen, on the other hand, is able to hide in the orderliness of his life without becoming sick in the general sense of the word. Yet the price he pays for this is an inability to glimpse reality’s more profound rifts and contradictions.


Friedrich Hölderlin

(Pencil drawing, 1823, by J. G. Schreiner and R. Lohbauer)

The postulate of Jaspers’ pathography, as substantiated by the cases of Van Gogh and Hölderlin, is that in the modern age severe mental illness is a prerequisite for attaining deeper insights into reality:

“Such experience, truly genuine, truly dangerous, is only possible among schizophrenics.”

In Strindberg and van Gogh the chapter on “Schizophrenia and Modern Civilization” is devoted to the unique perspective which is opened up by the richly metaphysical art of the

mentally ill. Never before, he wrote, had schizophrenic psychosis played such a dominant role within culture, so that “a number of high ranking people of today who became schizophrenic have impressed us with works from their years of illness.”.

With Van Gogh and Hölderlin in mind he writes:

"It is as if a last wellhead of life should fleetingly come within sight, as if the hidden ‘Whys’ of all life had found here an immediate basis on which to resolve themselves. For us this is an emotional trauma which we could not endure for long, to which we would gladly turn our backs. ... It is a trauma which does not easily lead to the assimilation of what is foreign, but which demands the transposition into a different form, which is acceptable to us. His world is terribly exciting but it is not our world. Questions emanate from it — an appeal to our own existence with the beneficial effect that a change takes place.”

It is these experiences of crisis, Jaspers writes, intensified through pathology, that distinguish the sick poets of the emerging modern age from those of the classical era:

“Goethe, for instance, could never have had this experience.”.

Jaspers then hones in further on the bourgeois hero Goethe, who had also been superseded by Hölderlin as the principal intellectual figure in the Stefan George circle:

"No other works can be compared with them. In contrast, even Goethe can be compared with others and represents, as it were, the highest type of human expression.”

Twenty-five years later, in his acceptance speech for the Goethe Prize, Jaspers developed this point of view more explicitly, categorically prioritizing the morbid modern age over the harmony of classicism.

The existential philosopher explained its title “Our Future and Goethe” with laconic clarity:

“Goethe’s world is over.”

He refused to see the “modern world,” Jaspers explained, and in his worldly wisdom blithely ignored all the evidence that even in his day pointed to a “rupture in Dasein”.

Everything that Goethe described as “sick,” Jaspers regarded as a worthy “exception.” Goethe’s good health, he believed, his desire “to be a well-rounded individual” had closed him off from a more profound view of things:

“Goethe opted for the realization of a full human life; he was not a victim like Kierkegaard or Nietzsche.”

For Jaspers, the philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche stand, alongside the artists Hölderlin and van Gogh, for the productive connection between psychopathology and modernity, with Max Weber as their representative from the sciences.

At the end of his pathography Jaspers reaffirms the singular importance of illness for the life’s work of each of these exceptional figures, starting with Hölderlin:

“This uniqueness originates in the fact that a quite extraordinary poet who, while not yet ill, was a poet of the first order, becomes schizophrenic in just this manner. There is no other case of such a combination. The only other case which stands comparison is van Gogh in the field of the graphic arts.”


The schizophrenic suffering merely intensifies the receptivity that is already present in the original and individual talent. Thus the intuition of divine unity enters into a charged relationship with the experience of the disjointedness of the time, and finds sublime expression in the philosophical, poetic, and artistic work."

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887

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Source :

Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy and Psychopatho
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