What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University

By Sandra Richter

Sandra Richter. Photo: Rica Burow, DLA Marbach

The history of the university and the history of academic freedom are intertwined but not identical. In certain historical situations they have even differed radically – whether it be for political, economic, or administrative reasons, or because of personal failure. In the German context, where academic freedom had already been part of the Paulskirche Constitution in 1848, the distinction between university and academic freedom was particularly relevant before and after 1945. Karl Jaspers, a famous psychiatrist and philosopher, was most prominent in debates on this matter. One of the founding-fathers of existentialism and teacher to Hannah Arendt, he had been removed from his professorship at the University of Heidelberg in 1937 (because his wife was Jewish) and reinstated in 1945. He left Heidelberg for Basel in 1949. After 1945, Jaspers attempted to provide answers to key questions of humanity in the modern world and to the dangers of atomic warfare; one of his main concerns was individual freedom. As early as 1923, he had published his treatise “The idea of the University” – a foundational text that he was to revise and republish in 1946 and 1961. If I am not mistaken, it is still one of the most extensive texts on the topic.

Jaspers’s treatise was essential after 1945 as a contribution to the new, post-Nazi Germany. Yet all of the versions of his treatise are guided by one assumption that requires critical discussion: the trust in an intellectual elite, also called “Geistesaristokratie”. It is this elite that nourishes and legitimizes Jaspers’s full-hearted support of the University.

According to Jaspers’s 1923-version, the gifts, the spiritual thriving (“geistige Triebkraft”, Jaspers, Gesamtausgabe, I/21, p. 29), the seriousness and dedication of the individual determine whether search for truth will be possible or not. Jaspers, however, refrains from simplistic distinctions between mass and elite. Rather, he argues, future students should be elected from the masses and not primarily from wealthy or erudite families. On the basis of thorough election, according to him, the idea of the University will flourish – not as a world view (“Weltanschauung”) but as an idea to guarantee constant intellectual movement and achievement. The individual carries the idea of the University and puts it into practice – in communication with the academic community. They all aim for two principles: clarity and the understanding of the whole.

Freedom, instead, does not play a major role in the 1923-version of Jaspers’ treatise. It is actually hardly considered, and appears only as a precondition: the “freedom to live in the idea”. According to the early version, the university is a post-Hellenistic corporation characterized by individual sacrifice and collective discipline in the light of spiritual joy.

Karl Jaspers 1966 in Basel. Image: Bildarchiv der ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Photo: Jack Metzger, CC BY-SA 4.0.

When the Nazis took power in 1933, Jaspers believed himself to be fighting against the ongoing decline of the University. Together with other lecturers in Heidelberg he developed a new constitution for the University. Their theses deviated from those that Jaspers’ colleague Martin Heidegger had expressed as a rector of the University of Freiburg in the same year. Jaspers felt deceived by Heidegger and declared that their friendship had come to an end. The reason was their disagreement about the University – an issue certainly serious enough to cause the end of a friendship.

However, Jaspers and Heidegger, opposing the “economic principle” that governed American and English universities, were both in favor of a “Geistesaristokratie” that would refrain from the anti-academic drive of knowledge management. Furthermore, Jaspers went so far as to include the principle of the leader in the constitution of the University he also wrote in 1933 (in sharp contrast to what he had laid down in his 1923-treatise, p. 45). In addition to this, he argued against the right to co-opt professors that was granted to academic committees: according to Jaspers, a commissioner of the state was now to employ professors. As a consequence, Jaspers argued in favor of the new academic constitution of the federal state of Baden that was set in place in 1933. He ignored the destructive tendencies of the new regime despite Hannah Arendt constantly reminding him not to be naïve. According to Arendt, Jaspers showed too much trust in the maturity of his fellow-citizens. Like Max Weber he believed in a German nationalism that would offer an alternative to Russian despotism, Anglo-American conventionalism and commercial thought. Liberalism, multidimensionality, the greatness of European civilization – these were ideals Jaspers thought his fellow citizens would swear an oath on.

In contrast to Heidegger, Jaspers stressed academic autonomy. According to Jaspers, labor service (“Arbeitsdienst”) and military sports (“Wehrsport”) required forms of discipline that were contradictory to academic work (“wesensverschieden”). In addition to this, he refused populist ideology (“völkische Ideologie”) and authoritarianism. He aimed at communication among an intellectual elite not at a dictatorship executed by the state.

Through the prosecution by the regime and the war, Jaspers’ focus on the University had shifted. Influenced by the experience of war, he strongly advocated two concepts: truthfulness or academic reliability (“Wissenschaftlichkeit”) and humanity (78). The first should ensure serious academic work that refrains from ideology, the second aims at respect of the human being. Jaspers participated in the reconstruction of the University of Heidelberg, was elected Senator and contributed to yet another constitution of the University. He also gave a speech when the University was reopened in August 1945, and presented a paper about the University on the radio.

The revision of the 1923-treatise also documents something else: the gratitude the German Universities owed to the Allies for the academic freedom they were granted – freedom of research and freedom of academic teaching. Yet, Jaspers identified a problem: democracy. According to Jaspers, the reign of the majority is contradictory to the idea of the University, where truth and the few have their forms to socialize.

It is only in 1961 that academic freedom begins to play the most important role in Jaspers’ treatise. By then, German universities were confronted with new challenges. Jaspers diagnosed six of them: first, the dominance of practical disciplines such as economics; second, that the differentiation of knowledge has undermined the idea of the University; third, the feeling of belonging together is vanishing, the unity of the University no longer exists; fourth, the large number of students lead to many problems; fifth, students have become financially dependent on the state because their parents cannot afford to cover their costs of living – this leads to a restriction of their intellectual freedom because students have to finish their studies quickly, and/or have to earn money themselves; and sixth, the academic level of the students has gotten worse. In short: everything we complain about today already existed in Jaspers’ time.

As a consequence, Jaspers aims at reconfiguring the idea of the University. He declares that the University means “Bezeugung der Freiheit durch Wahrheit” – that is, “testifying freedom through truth”. Freedom is no longer the precondition of academic work – it has become its telos, a telos that seems to be reached through the ways in which academics search for truth. Unlike his previous treatises, Jaspers contextualizes his idea of the University politically:

The university, free in the free state, stands supranationally in the place of truth […]. Where truth is at work, there is plurality of intellectual powers. Thus the supra-political and insofar apolitical university is “political” only in one respect: as a search for truth, it is incompatible with total rule […]. (p. 287)

Consequently, the University is seen as a space that is free from the state (“staatsfrei”, p. 366). As the University’s search for truth depends on the exchange of arguments and opinions, it cannot exist in a totalitarian state. Society has to risk truth and academic exchange – just as the researcher herself does. In turn, academic discourses help to see things clearly, judge adequately, invent novelties, and avoid complacency. If used appropriately in non-academic, practical life, academic discourse can have fruitful consequences for a society’s well-being. Still, this risk presupposes the limitation of the democratic principle. The vote of the majority is not adequate in academic contexts. It’s the intellectual elite with its mechanisms of selection, its discursive processes and the academic conscience of the individual that count.

Jaspers’ argument is complex: Having stated that the University presupposes plurality, he aims at drawing a sharp distinction between democracy on the one hand, the University on the other. Democracy also presupposes plurality. Yet, both fields organize plurality differently: the intellectual elite deliberates; in democracy, parties and representatives discuss and decide.

We have now reconstructed how one of the most popular thinkers of the University conceived it, first, as a post-Hellenistic corporation in the Weimar republic, second and after 1945, as a mass university, and third (in the early 1960s) as a pluralistic and non-political space in the democratic sphere.

To sum up:

  1. What we consider to be a given relation – that of freedom and the University – came under threat in the Nazi-period and was only reinstated in the 1960s, at least in the German context.

  2. Even if the connection between freedom and the University is made, the tensions between democracy and the University, between academic and practical orientations, and between the mass and the intellectual aristocracy have remained and shaped our understanding of the University.

  3. Included in this heritage is the connection between the academic field (in and beyond the University) and freedom: freedom certainly is a precondition of academic work but to what extent is it also its goal or telos?


Sandra Richter is director of the Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach (German Literature Archive) and professor for modern German literature at the University of Stuttgart. Her publications include A History of Poetics: German Scholarly Aesthetics and Poetics in International Context, 1770-1960 (Berlin/New York 2010) and Eine Weltgeschichte der deutschsprachigen Literatur (Munich 2017).

Further articles in the Academic Freedom series on TRAFO:

Gisèle Sapiro, Amr Hamzawy, and Başak Tuğ, Threats to Academic Freedom – Historical and Contemporary Remarks, 17 February 2021.

Pascal Engel, Academic Freedom is the Freedom to Know, 24 February 2021.

Mitchell G. Ash, The Suppression and Misuses of Academic Freedom During the Nazi Regime, 3 March 2021.

Citation: Sandra Richter, What Kind of Academic Freedom and for Whom? Karl Jaspers’ Idea of the University, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/27075.

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