Volume 16, No 1, Spring 2021 ISSN 1932-1066

Karl Jaspers—Richard Wisser

Correspondence 1951–1964

Ruth A. Burch

LinguaePro, Lugano, Switzerland

Abstract: Nine pieces of correspondence between Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) and Richard Wisser (1927–2019) plus one announcement by Jaspers, from the time period of 1951–1964 are here being rendered into English. The translations of these letters are annotated and illustrated by pictorial representations of some of the original letters. Wisser contacts Jaspers in order to present to him his Philosophy Study Group Worms that is discussing Jaspers' book Die geistige Situation der Zeit. By way of philosophical conversation, it seeks to bring about an inner revolution for as Jaspers argues "truth proves itself when we understand us in it and connect us in it." Yet ultimately it aims at exerting reason in practical (political) life. Jaspers also details the importance of Cusanus' philosophy for him and its tension with respect to Thomistic thought.

Keywords: Jaspers, Karl; Wisser, Richard; Aquinas, Thomas; Cusanus, Nicolaus; German politics; Heidelberg University; inner revolution; philosophical polemics.


1 Richard Wisser to Karl Jaspers

no date, approx. November 1951

Esteemed Professor Karl Jaspers!

You will understand that the newly founded Philosophy Study Group Worms eventually turns to you personally after holding three discussions in which selected sections of your work Die geistige Situation der Zeit were being read and interpreted,1 as you have already been the mental focus of our Study Group during this entire time.

The awakening of a philosophical conversation in a working-class town such as Worms, whose sociological small-town character adds additional obstacles, is met with great difficulties.

However, the fact that the dicey venture that was inspired by your spirit turned out to be a success—so far, we have been able to record an even slowly increasing number of participants—is probably not least due to the fact that this work from your hand, which is still absolutely valid today, can mediate in the widest circles an impetus for an inner revolution. In addition, a comprehensible path seems to open up from here, on which the essence of your actual philosophizing can also be brought closer to those who have not had any previous philosophical training.

If we allowed ourselves to put your disposition under other headings, we were forced to do so not only for reasons of journalistic effectiveness, but also because of the difficulties in selecting the titles that you have presented. If time permits, you can see from the enclosed program and the first newspaper reviews how the elaboration precisely of your concern is being fostered by juxtaposition with other thinkers.

We would be greatly indebted to you, esteemed Professor Karl Jaspers, if you were to feel connected to our Study Group due to the intellectual patronage that you have assumed with your work, which is the basis of our discussion.

With respectful, devoted greetings on behalf of the Philosophy Study Group

Richard Wisser

2 Karl Jaspers to Richard Wisser and
August Sahm2

Basel, November 30, 1951

Dear Sirs,

Thank you very much for your kind communication about your study group. It is an honor and a joy for me that you use my Spiritual Situation in the Current Times as a basis for it.

Philosophy, which remains a matter for specialists, is therefore arguably always questionable. What can be translated from philosophy into common thinking ultimately decides its value. For truth proves itself when we understand us in it and connect us in it. Now it seems to me as gratifying as it is difficult that you are attempting to awaken the mindset of reason. We are just all too inclined to obediently accept assertions, mythical visions, and contents that are being superstitious of science. The openness of listening and asking questions is accessible to everyone when with unconditional seriousness the respective personal decision is being taken. Yet exerting reason requires training, especially in practical life, albeit it needs preparatory practice in thinking and in dialogue.

It seems to me to be excellent that you bring in other authors regarding the individual topics in order to have clarified in friction as to what has been said.

I wish you and all participants further satisfaction through prolific insight, which each one inspired by the community, would like to bring to a decision in solitary thinking-with-oneself.

My best regards! Your devoted

Karl Jaspers

3 Karl Jaspers public letter of thanks

Basel, February 24, 1958

My thanks go out to friends and acquaintances, authorities and institutions, listeners and readers for the congratulations made on my 75th birthday, as well as for the letters, telegrams, flowers, and gifts given. The sentiments shown to me fill me with the pleasant awareness of not being a stranger in this world and of being welcome to many human beings. Grateful for this reality, I return encouraged to my work. Each one of these friendly acclamations I have reflectively brought to mind, I will not forget any of them, as I must ask you for the favor of not bearing any ill will for the absence of a personal answer.

Basel, February 24th, 1958

Karl Jaspers

4 Richard Wisser to Karl Jaspers

Worms, April 3, 1958

Dear Professor Jaspers!

May I approach you politely with a special request? A symposium is planned to be held in which philosophers from different countries and schools of thought will take part. This symposium is to be prepared on the occasion of Prof. von Rintelen's 60th birthday.3 As a topic, I have suggested that questions should be addressed that revolve around the problem of meaning and being.

Since I have come to know that the jubilee made intellectual contact with you many years ago and was thus very strongly impressed and influenced by your philosophical views—to which his various seminars and lectures about your intellectual work testify—I take the liberty to cordially invite you to participate in this symposium. Personally, I like doing this all the more as I myself am under the influence of your philosophy for years.

Since Mr. von Rintelen's birthday is already on May 16 of this year, the symposium will only be published subsequently. However, we would like to already hand over to Mr. von Rintelen on his birthday the list of participants and the envisaged topics. There is sufficient time available to finalize the essays, as the printing will not start before the end of the year. The length of the essays should be at the least 10 pages.

If, however, given your great workload you do not find sufficient time to compose a new essay, I can assure you that we would be very delighted to receive one of your manuscripts or a suitable section taken thereof, which adds to the symposium either your position in general or on a specific question.

In the last few days, the foreign scholars Gabriel Marcel, Gaston Berger, Michele F. Sciacca, Herbert W. Schneider (USA), Honorio Delgado (Peru), Eduardo García Máynez (Mexico) have agreed to take part in the symposium. German participants are Eduard Spranger, Erich Rothacker, Aloys Wenzl, Gottfried Martin, Max Müller, Fritz Leist, Emil Preetorius, and Fritz Heinemann. We are awaiting further affirmative answers to letters that have been or will be sent out in the next few days.

May I hope, highly respected Professor Jaspers, that you will kindly give us an acceptance, especially as it is very important to me personally that this will give the conversation a meaningful turn.

With sincere regards and my best wishes for Easter, I remain

Yours respectfully

Richard Wisser

5 Karl Jaspers to Richard Wisser

Basel, April 10, 1958

Dear Doctor Wisser!

Thank you for the honorable invitation to collaborate in the Symposium to celebrate the 60th birthday of Mr. von Rintelen. I would love to partake in it if I could summon up the time and energy for it. However, I am so burdened with urgent tasks that I am not allowed to take on any more of them, especially since I am still in office and I am carrying out my teaching activities. Please have an amiable understanding for this and convey the reasons for my failure to attend to the jubilee once he will have known that I have been asked. I will convey my congratulations to him directly on the day.

With the best regards

Your devoted

Karl Jaspers

6 Richard Wisser to Karl Jaspers

Worms, April 14, 1958

Dear Professor Jaspers!

It is with great regret that I have found out from your letter that your manifold commitments do not make it possible that you find the time and opportunity to take part in the planned symposium: SENSE AND BEING, which will be held on the occasion of Mr. von Rintelen's 60th birthday. If I expressed myself in mistakable wording in my letter of invitation in such a way that you would have seen yourself confronted with a tight deadline, that would, thus, be my fault; for as far as I can foresee the schedule now, the printing will not start until the beginning of 1959 at the earliest.

By saying my sincerest thanks to you, highly respected Professor Jaspers, for your message, I remain with the best regards

Yours faithfully

Richard Wisser

7 Karl Jaspers to Richard Wisser

Basel, September 23, 1962

Dear Doctor Wisser!

Thank you for your manuscript, which is enclosed and I am returning it to you with only very few notes in the margin. You reported my recent political statements and my autobiographical details so judiciously that I was delighted. It seems to me courageous that you have presented this, especially in the circle you have been referring to. In my opinion, this presentation of my political way of thinking for the uninitiated ones I find to be a very welcome indication [to my work]. I almost always have to put up with superficial misunderstandings, but not with you. I'm pleased that you will be repeating this on the radio.

I only ask you to improve one passage. I had not cited the Max Weber quote correctly myself. It should be: "I thank fate that I was born German." Nobody has noticed my mistake. I noticed it myself when I was reading the materials concerning Life Questions of German Politics for the purpose of reprinting it. It is a fundamental error, for Max Weber would hardly have spoken in such a manner as I have quoted him. At the moment of writing, I was egregiously unaware of this. I have only checked it now as it had made me pause.

The DTV edition with the title Life Questions of German Politics contains my short political writings from 1945-47 and 1956-1962.4 Only a few new things have been added from last year, plus an introduction, further a small exchange of letters with General Heusinger on a passage from "freedom and reunification."5 1948-1956 I did not write anything political, yet I made many notes for a book that had been planned since 1945: German self-awareness. For this, the materials have accumulated in the earlier years. Now I keep postponing work on it, for other philosophical tasks are closer to my present interests. Although the reason for writing this book is inwardly unshakable to me, the experiences depress me so much today that I would no longer take up this work with the joy that is being exhilarated by a belief in the readers. Your presentation is one of those ones that give me courage, although you do not take a position in it yourself.

Finally, a question: Did you ever attend my seminar in Heidelberg after 1945? I believe remembering your name together with the feeling of having heard a presentation or discussion of a debate from you, the content of which, however, I no longer recall at all.

With cordial regards


Karl Jaspers

8 Karl Jaspers public letter of thanks

Basel, February 27, 1963

On my eightieth birthday I received letters and telegrams, flowers and presents, congratulations from a world that is well-disposed to me. Each kind gesture of this mindset I have slowly, for days, called to mind and contemplated upon, one after the other. I want to thank each and every one of you. But I must ask all of you, friends and acquaintances, colleagues and students, listeners and readers, to refrain from awaiting my personal thanks. You show me your affection once more by understanding the situation of the octogenarian, who is happy at the kindness and yet perturbed by the inadequacy of his reply.

Basel, February 27, 1963

Karl Jaspers

9 Richard Wisser to Karl Jaspers

Worms, September 28, 1962

Dear Professor Jaspers!

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your detailed letter and for the speedy return of the manuscript, which you kindly reviewed. I am really very glad that I did not fundamentally misrepresent your position and the genesis of your political thinking.

That I have not expressly taken a position, I ask you to understand solely from the given situation. I had to address a forum that is well known to you from some of its reactions. I did not want that on grounds of a premature confession on my part, the subsequent thoughts, which I attempted to present objectively would meet disaccord at the outset from a large part of the conference participants despite the existentially impacting thought having this effect, given the understanding awakening presentation. Not that I would fear contradiction. My concern—please understand this "political" approach—was purely tactical, aiming at not being contradicted. If that had occurred, I would no longer have been able to stand up for you convincingly as an advocate, which I hope I did very resolutely. In my opinion, more has been achieved in this way than if I had integrated my point of view into the presentation itself. In any case, I was delighted when two delegates from two refugee organizations declared: if one also etc., then one would have to say nevertheless that there is more to Jaspers' position than it is generally being thought of. (Please excuse the—albeit typical—wording).

Of course, I too am greatly interested in your philosophy. However, since I gained the impression that your existential philosophy also has to prove itself in the political sphere as reason within the unreasonable, I followed the request and, if you will, attempted to engage in illuminative clarification (Auf-klärung).6 This point evidences that your thinking is a matter regarding the entire human being.

Concerning your question as to whether I collaborated in your Heidelberg seminar! It is possible that you remember my cousin of the same name. I approached you when, with youthful exuberance, I was conducting an event at the Volkshochschule in Worms on seven evenings about your work The Spiritual Situation in the Current Times.

In response to your cordial regards, I remain with my best wishes

Your always grateful

Richard Wisser

10 Karl Jaspers to Richard Wisser

Basel, December 4, 1964

Dear Doctor Wisser!

Thank you very much for sending your review and for your letter.

To be sure it is asking for too much that an author ought to give his reviewer guidelines, express approval or rejection. Since you ask me, I have to answer, yet I can nevertheless only do so in a cursory manner. For addressing your question would mean either repeating what has already been said, or developing my thought further which would go beyond the possibilities of a letter. Hence, I write to you just in brief:

You are right that philosophical polemics is a major issue for me. Since the beginning of philosophy, it can be noted in philosophy. It can be evidenced in great figures. As far as I can see, there is no systematic research on this. And today a novel kind of polemics is required, which one has to put into practice before one can reflect upon it. It is true that I have said a few things about it, on the topic of polemic I attempted such approaches contending with Bultmann.7 Among other things, (in my Schelling book) I have discussed the Fichte-Schelling-Hegel polemic and the one of all of the aforementioned with Kant.8 However, the critical part of my appropriation of the great philosophers can hardly be counted as a philosophical polemic. I do not consider appropriating criticism to be of a polemic nature to which only contemporaries are able to respond. There is a point as to why Leibniz did not publish his great work against Locke, since Locke had just died when he had completed it.

With regard to Cusanus, I consider my criticism to be incidental. The substance of thinking is, also according to the number of pages, my reiteration of the metaphysics of this great and unique thinker and what in it one can call his existential philosophy. Reiteration is not recitation, but selective re-production. From a reviewer I wish he would engage in the conjecture and follow its method. For instance, regarding what it means when Cusanus has God saying: Sis tu tuus et ego ero tuus.9 I acquired the glory and depth of this philosophy at the end of World War I and shortly thereafter and have lived with it ever since. I am displeased that this philosophy, which is so important to me and because of which I wrote the book, is not regarded as being the actual topic of my book.

It also seems to me that the many interrelations within my Cusanus book should not be ignored. Everything is connected with everything else, or it surely should be so. And the criticism is in no small part self-criticism, through which I have arrived at where I stand now. Indeed, I would like to address much of what you have written in the short essay. I will single out just one detail:

You say in passing that I give little attention to Cusanus' theology, that I care only about his philosophy. This is correct only insofar as I do not unfold in detail the contents of his sermons and the development of the philosophical illumination of Christian dogmas. Yet I do say what appears to me to be crucial: just as Augustine and Anselm at the beginning did not know of a separation of philosophy and theology, and this separation in fact only became final through Thomas, yet in a wondrous, superior naivety Cusanus treated this separation as non-existent. With the separation of philosophy and theology, one does not achieve an accurate understanding of Cusanus himself. It was no coincidence that I referred to Glossner,10 the Thomistic, furious opponent of Cusanus, arguing along the lines of Prof. Wenck in Heidelberg who was the only one at that time to whom Cusanus replied.11

If I speak pointedly: a Catholic piety, which experiences the church as an institution of worship, not as a political power structure, has here and there since the 19th century—today perhaps even more so—found through Cusanus the sentences and inner constitutions that bring to it great freedom and a deep security without coming up against dogmas. Perhaps if you study Cusanus literature of our time, you would agree with me that there is a tension between Thomistic and Cusanian thought that sometimes reinterprets Cusanus but sometimes simply forgets that as a Catholic, one naturally thinks in Thomistic terms. Cusanus seen from the point of view of the Church is a heretic. He did not become so because of his great church-political merits regarding the unity of the church (that is at the same time philosophically meaningful for him).

I address these matters in my book quite indirectly, for I have no interest in setting Cusanus against the Church. This is the concern of devout Catholics who wish to reform their church, like Cusanus had wished to do it unavailingly. Then instead of it, as I briefly mentioned, came Luther: the terrible barbarian with his uncanny depths, his mighty intellect and not without baseness of character, the fate of which we still suffer today. At this point then a weakness of Cusanus is palpable, which we recognize in ourselves and, insofar as it is the result of a clarity, we regard it, not without sympathy, rather with pain.

Please do not take these short sentences as being definitive, only as pointers.12

The sensational title of your review,13 that was not given by you, could be right, if it meant a possible consequence of my Cusanus in devout philosophizing. But this consequence did not actually occur. You are therefore right to repudiate the title. For general refutations or corrections that are becoming conventional on the part of individual historical researchers are truly not an uproar.

With kind regards and best wishes for you


Karl Jaspers

1 The book has been translated by Eden and Cedar Paul with the tile Man in the Modern Age, however, a literal translation of the text would render it as The Spiritual Situation in the Current Times.

2 Wisser and Sahm have been members of the Philosophische Arbeitsgemeinschaft der Wormser Volkshochschule 1951–1952. See August Sahm and Richard Wisser, Jaspers als Blickpunkt für neue Einsichten, Heft 1, Worms am Rhein, DE: Erich Norberg Verlag, 1952.

3 Bibliographical details and a commentary regarding Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen are provided in Richard Wisser, "Wertwirklichkeit und Sinnverständnis. Gedanken zur Philosophie von Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen," in Sinn und Sein: Ein philosophisches Symposion F. J. v. Rintelen gewidmet, ed. Richard Wisser, Tübingen, DE: Niemeyer 1960, pp. 611–708.

4 Karl Jaspers, Lebensfragen der deutschen Politik, München, DE: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1963.

5 General Adolf Heusinger (1897–1982).

6 Jaspers uses wordplay around the concept of enlightenment; by using the hyphen, he is associating it with elucidation, illumination, and education.

7 Karl Jaspers and Rudolf Bultmann, Myth and Christianity: An Inquiry into the Possibility of Religion Without Myth, transl. Norbert Guterman, New York, NY: Noonday Press 1958.

8 Karl Jaspers, Schelling: Grösse und Verhängnis, München, DE: R. Piper Verlag, 1955.

9 Be yours and I will be yours.

10 Michael Gloßner (1837-1909).

11 Johannes Wenck von Herrenberg († 1460).

12 In the left margin Jaspers added in his handwriting: Sorry for the mistakes in the dictation!

13 Richard Wisser, "Nikolaus Cusanus im 'lebendigen Spiegel' der Philosophie von Karl Jaspers," Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 19/3 (1965), 528–540.