Карл Ясперс


JASPERS, Karl (b. February 23, 1883, Oldenburg, Germany; d. February 26, 1969, Basel, Switzerland).

One of the first theorists in the sphere of globalistics, in the mid-twentieth century Jaspers considered the “global world,” “global unity,” “one humanity,”  “common destiny,” and “the closure of the world,” introducing these and other fundamental concepts. Now they are the basis of modern global terminology and have expanded their philosophical base greatly.

Jaspers started his academic career as a psychologist. After the 1920s his interests shifted to philosophy, and he studied history, epistemology, religion, and politics. In 1937, as he didn’t want to collaborate with the Nazis, Jaspers lost the title of professor, and until the end of the Second World War was constantly under threat of being arrested. In the postwar period, he took an active social and political position and became popular among German liberal intellectuals. The works The Problem of German Guilt (Die Schuldfrage. Ein Beitragzurdeutschen Frage, 1946) and Whither Germany? (Wiley, 1969) made him famous. During the postwar period he also paid much attention to the problems of social life, the history of progressive development, interdependence, and the integrity of mankind.

While exploring historical process dynamics, Jaspers noticed the short (from the historical point of view) period of the ancient world, when the fundamental characteristics of social life radically changed. A mythological world view was based on feelings and emotions, but it lost its place to a philosophical outlook, based on rationality. As opposed to polytheism, monotheism appeared and a new type of social relations – a slaveholding system – appeared.

Jaspers called this era an “axial age.” This term is widely used in the literature, including in contemporary globalistic studies.

The term “axial age” was used to denote “a decisive turning point in the stream of events” and refers to a well-defined period of time. It characterized world history between 800 and 200 bc, when almost simultaneously in three different, almost unrelated, regions of the world – in Europe, India, and China– dramatic changes “in the spiritual foundations of humanity” took place. Jaspers speaks about “the explosion of the human spirit” when understanding of universality emerges, and he calls the times when this happens “axial,” a turning point from one qualitative state of society to another.

The concept of an “axial age” is relatively abstract and speculative, and should not be exaggerated by trying to identify it with mathematical precision, for example, how many of those turning points in history have already happened, or how many could happen in future.

The basic meaning of the term is that it can show more clearly the uneven changes in history, which gradually accumulated and then caused a breakthrough into a new societal stage. Recently, owing to the growing interest in global history, this term was further justified and its content was updated, allowing it to be used in a wider context, including at other turning points in world history, so we can now refer to not one but several “axial ages,” in particular with regard to the processes of globalization. One of the most significant works for globalistics is Origins of History and Its Purpose (1948), where Jaspers first used the term “global” in the sense it is understood nowadays, with a strong concern that some day humankind would lack space amid a depletion of natural resources. Jaspers saw the global perspective and people’s future, and formulated it clearly when he wrote that people no longer had open paths. As regards space and substance they can only go round. If there were a single world order, one would not face barbarous people outside but nature itself. Its limits in the very near future would create a new historical situation, he warned, and careless consumption indicated that nature’s stocks would eventually be exhausted. Jaspers also noticed situational changes for people in general, and changes in their relationships with their geographical environment.

Owing to the technical possibilities of modern communication, our planet has become a single integrated whole, fully accessible to man, ‘smaller’ than was once the Roman Empire.” He continued, referring to history, “The development since the era of the great discoveries 400 years ago made it possible. However, until the end of the nineteenth century history for us was in fact the history of the West. The rest of the world remained in the minds of the Europeans as a colonial territory of minor importance, prey for the Europeans. Only then, and inadvertently, the foundation for emerging world history was set, and it was established by powerful forces that sought to subjugate the vast territories of the globe. These areas had already contributed to World War i. However, this war was more European. America again receded. Only World War ii required the participation of everyone and was really global. Military operations in East Asia were no less serious than in Europe. It was in fact the first truly global war.


After drawing attention to this fundamental historical transformation, Jaspers was the first to notice that it was World War ii that completely tied together various aspects of public life in all the countries and nations. Thus he not only stressed the integrity and territorial isolation of humanity on the globe, but was also the first who spoke the language of globalism, thus laying the basis of its categorical framework.


From this moment,” he said, “world history as a single unified whole story begins.

From this point of view, the entire previous history is represented by scattered, independent attempts, by different sources of human capabilities. Now the main issue is the world as a whole. And history is changing dramatically. The following is crucial now: there is nothing that would be out of ongoing events. The world became integral, the globe became united. New threats and opportunities may appear. All significant problems have become global ones and the state of all mankind.

Another of Jaspers’ statements, this time on the formative period of globalistics, makes it plain that he played an important role in understanding the unity and integrity of the world.


In particular, he noted that “after creating an incredible speed of communication, technologies led to global unity. The history of united mankind started; its destiny became indivisible. People around the globe can now see each other. As our planet is now more accessible to people than was East Asia for China or the Mediterranean for Rome, the political unity of the planet is only a matter of time. Development goes, apparently, from national states through major continental spheres of influence to the world empire or world order.


More than half a century has passed since he wrote those lines, and today it is clear how correct his prediction was regarding the changes of the postwar world as it moved towards globalization. And many of his words have already widely come to pass, and nowadays are relevant and urgent.


Jaspers’ role in the formation of globalistics is still undervalued. In this respect he is not so well known not only in Russia but also in the West, even though publications and discussions about the environment have shifted towards global problems, as they did in the 1980s. His name was not mentioned, although he fully deserved it. The problem here is not about some omission or misunderstanding, but in the fact that scientists, philosophers, and researchers who faced global problems were mesmerized by the situation on the state, on the phenomenon of global problems, while the changes in dynamics and especially the issues behind them remained out of sight.

More emphasis was given to facts and figures that showed the situation was getting worse, with data (by year, by region, by pollution intensity) fixing the maximum permissible concentration of harmful substances, and charts, tables, and graphs showing that humanity, step by step, was moving towards a catastrophe. In other words, the static rather than dynamic state, and not variability but the specific situation were being focused on.

That is why global unity, progress towards a single world order, and finally the integration of the world (more than half a century ago Jaspers had noticed this, the much deeper characteristic of the essence of globalization) remain behind the scenes and therefore ignored almost to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Jaspers forecast the dynamics of change of the postwar world on its way to globalization, and can rightly be considered one of the founders of modern globalistics.

Works: Vom Ursprung und Zici der Geschichte, 3 Aufl (Munchen, 1952); Rechenschaft und Ausblick (Munchen, 1951); Die grofien Philosophen, Bd 1–2 (Munchen, 1957); Die Atom-bombe und die Zukunft des Menschen (Munchen, 1962); Der philosophische Glaube angesichts der Offenbarung (Munchen, 1962); Gesammelte Schriften zur Psychopathologie (Berlin, 1963); Chiffren der Transzendenz (München, 1970). The Origins of the History and Its Purpose (Moscow, 1991), my. 1–2; Meaning and Purpose of History, trans. from German (Moscow: Politizdat, 1991); Karl Jaspers: Philosophical Autobiography (M, 1995).

Lit.: P.P. Gaidenko, Existentialism and the Problem of Culture (Moscow, 1963); Karl Jaspers: P.A. Schilpp (Stuttgart, 1957); Karl Jaspers. Werk und Wirkung; K. Piper (Munchen, 1963); Karl Jaspers in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Reinbekbei Harnb, 1970); A.N. Tipsina, Philosophy of Religion Jaspers (Leningrad, 1982).