“You are dealing with the Devil”: Karl Jaspers’ Critique of Psychoanalysis

In the current issue of Existenz, Matthias Bornmuth provides a useful overview of Karl Jaspers’ critique of psychoanalysis. That critique is explained in terms of Max Weber’s influence and Jaspers’ ideal of

a kind of science which restricted itself to objective facts in the realm of psychotherapy as well; he wanted biographical aspects of life to be treated in the purely subjective sphere of existential communication between the patient and the physician.

The main worry, it seems, is the one that Jaspers expressed concerning pseudo-science in Psychologie der Weltanschauungen, the 1919 book that marks his transition from psychiatry into philosophy. Jaspers thinks of scientific knowledge as necessarily observant of its own limitations. And, for him, pseudo-science results from illicit attempts to extend objective, scientific insights beyond their proper limits into the philosophical realm of values—the subjective realm of existential communication that therapist and patient properly inhabit.

A second article, written by the psychoanalyst Roger Frie, points out that, from today’s perspective, Jaspers’ interactions with psychoanalysis look anachronistic. Frie writes:

The totalizing effect of psychoanalysis feared by Jaspers pales in comparison to the biologically grounded, psychopharmacological edifice of much current day psychiatry. Moreover, the consumerism of today’s mental health profession makes Jaspers’ worries seem truly [quaint].

But Frie struggles to explain the sheer strength of Jaspers’ criticism, which seems only to have intensified over time. In a private letter of 1953 to Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, Jaspers describes psychoanalysis as being

of the devil, and for this reason it must be rejected completely … be aware that you are dealing with the devil; you are ending up in realms in which you do not want to be.

Frie is further baffled by Jaspers’ comparison, in the same letter, between psychoanalysis and National Socialism, especially since (in contrast to Jaspers’ own refusal to collaborate with the régime) Weizsäcker was ‘the one to throw Freud’s work, The Future of an Illusion … into the fire in May 1933’ during National Socialist book-burnings, calling the book a ‘self-glorification of doubt’.

So, understandably, Frie finds himself unable to explain what compelled Jaspers to engage in a critique of this strength, especially in his later years. As Frie states, we ‘cannot make sense of such statements, written a mere eight years after the end of the war and in full knowledge of the Holocaust’. I doubt that it is possible, either, fully to comprehend Jaspers’ metaphorical use of diabolical language in connection with psychoanalysis. But, in his book, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, Josh Cohen illuminates the significance of this association in a way that makes Jaspers’ choice of words slightly less bewildering.

In the Genesis narrative, after Adam has eaten the apple, God asks him, ‘Where art thou?’ ‘An odd inquiry, surely,’ Cohen observes, ‘coming from an all-seeing and omniscient Creator.’ Adam’s reply, ‘I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself’, shows that God’s question registers ‘his creation’s newfound capacity to hide’ and its contrast with the ‘transparent’, prelapsarian universe ‘in which all is immediately visible’. Satan’s entrance into Eden introduces division into a formerly unified world—division between the revealed and the hidden, pleasure and desire, signified and signifier. It is into such a divided world, and for that very reason, that psychoanalysis enters. Cohen elaborates:

Psychoanalysis is, in this respect, an essentially Satanic, or at least post-Satanic practice. It starts from the premise that you come into the world, like Satan, afflicted by pain of longing [Milton], dimly perceiving an internal need you’re powerless to assuage, and that will stay with you for as long as you’re alive. It describes a world within and without you replete with gaps—in love, in pleasure, in understanding—and seeks to relieve you at least a little of the Satanic rage these gaps provoke in you, to dispel the seductive and cruel fantasy that they could be eliminated, that somewhere an inner Paradise untainted by frustration and desire awaits if only you can find it.

Cohen’s reading of Genesis is no more literal than Jaspers’ language of ‘the devil’. And if we listen, as Cohen has, for the figurative depth of such language, we can appreciate the unexpected sense in which Jaspers may have been correct—the sense in which, with psychoanalysis, we are indeed dealing with the Devil, in realms in which we do not want to be.