Karl Jaspers on the "Psychopathology" of Genius

Dernière mise à jour : 12 janv. 2021

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

(from the series "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