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William James, Karl Jaspers, And The Call to Transcendence


William James (1842-1910), one of the founders of American psychology, was also among the most important pioneers of the academic study of mysticism. Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), German psychiatrist and existential philosopher, too was fascinated with transient self-transcendent experiences (STEs) in which participation with “something greater” than the baseline egoic self-structure seemingly occurs. Karl Jaspers more actively than James pursued STEs through his “self-annihilating” dialectics, his receptivity to “cyphers” in empirical existence, and what he referred to as his daily “transcending meditation.” It is suggested in this paper that when the classical Jamesian markers of “mystical” experiences are applied to Jaspers’ STEs; Jaspers convincingly fits on James’ “mystical ladder.” Reasons for Jaspers’ reluctance to self-identify as a “mystic” are identified, and parallels between James and Jaspers are noted in passing. Jaspers remains significant for his respect for an existential life productively lived in-the-world while at the same time engaging in an approach to self-transcendence in which “I as myself vanish.” 

Keywords: Karl Jaspers, William James, existential philosophy, mysticism, self-transcendence

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