Jaspers Concept of “Limit Situation”: Extensions and Therapeutic Applications

Thomas Fuchs, Thiemo Breyer and Christoph Mundt (eds.)Karl Jaspers’ Philosophy and Psychopathology201410.1007/978-1-4614-8878-1_11
© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

11. Jaspers Concept of “Limit Situation”: Extensions and Therapeutic Applications

Christoph Mundt 

University of Heidelberg, Voßstr. 4, 69115 Heidelberg, Germany



Christoph Mundt


This chapter starts with differentiating the methodological approaches of life events versus limit situations in the sense of Jaspers and differences of the ensuing results. The former is based on the third-person perspective, and the latter on the first-person perspective. Jaspers’ four, later five, limit situations are defined and their possible impact on existence and life course is exemplified. Developmental versus destructive impacts of limit situations are distinguished. Detrimental forms of auto-protection against limit situations by retreat from developmental challenges in crises are described. The section on psychotherapeutic applications of limit situations implies a turn from a static to a dynamic conception of limit situations. Transitional passages of the resolution of limit situations under guidance of psychotherapy are discussed. Differences between limit situations, life-threatening natural catastrophes, and man-made torture as well as the differentiation of their developmental versus destructive impact on the personality are pointed out. “Soft limit situations” as probe developmental steps are described, as well as the consequences of a lack of limit situations as a possible impediment for maturation of the personality. Finally it is discussed whether there is a need to complement the list of Jaspers’ limit situations.

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11.1 Introduction

The interest in Jaspers’ concept of limit situation was aroused by the conceptual debate about precipitations of psychiatric syndromes, particularly depressive episodes as a model of limit situations, and their prevention (cf. Mundt et al. 2009). British Psychiatry emphasized the objectifying approach up to an ultimate conceptual restriction of life events to entries and exits in the life history of a person. These criteria were the most reliable ones predicting onset or in case of “fresh start events” remission of depression. Opposite to the 3rdPP of those studies, the phenomenological approach took the 1stPP on patients’ strivings or specific apprehensions. The two perspectives relate to each other in a complementary way.

Over the last 10 years, Jaspers’ concept of limit situation has been re-evaluated under psychopathological, psychological, and psychotherapeutic aspects. This treatise will comprise those reformulations which help to elucidate the detrimental impact of life events and lasting distressing life situations on mental health. Furthermore it is meant to contribute to better understanding of the salutogenetic mechanisms of psychotherapeutic crisis intervention. Also limits of the concept will be discussed for its use in clinical context. Since the term was not conceived for psychopathological but for philosophical use, adaptation to psychopathological and psychotherapeutic terms was needed. Furthermore, its limits as a concept of understanding psychopathology had to be determined.

According to Jaspers (1954, pp. 229–280, 416–418; 1965; 1973) limit situations are characterized by inevitable antinomies which prevent a person going on as usual. A personal solution is necessary to accustom which implies change or development. Jaspers’ typing of limit situations declares them as super-individual challenges intrinsic to existence, thus unavoidable, and requiring a personal response which engenders maturation. In a first approach, four, later five, categories were conceived.

11.2 The Antinomies

Fight is defined as the necessity to take a decision in contradictious constellations or highly ambivalent states of mind . As an example, Jaspers mentions individual freedom be basically limited by the freedom of the other. Without fighting, the individual, according to Jaspers, runs into complacency, i.e., relinquishes potential development. We could add: or falls into depression if developmental potential of the person is wasted.

Jaspers says that fight usually is disliked, misperceived as an ultimate action as though the fight for the sake of fighting should be appreciated. However, fight for the concrete existence is unavoidable. Man lives but is doomed to die, needs to select, to overcome or reconcile contentions. Since living without fight is impossible, fight lends dignity and strength to the individual.

Guilt is another central aporia leading to limit situations since any human being has to leave options aside while acting in any decision whatsoever. Jaspers refers here not so much to ethical problems we deal with in our ethical committees or in forensic psychiatry but to existential guilt, i.e., lagging behind one’s own abilities and aspirations. Augustine, Luther, and Kierkegaard were particularly aware of existential guilt. Guilt out of antinomies is experienced silently. It makes a difference whether man confronts himself or others, or judges himself in an absolute way. Several social procedures of pre-emptive redemption have been introduced in different religions to heal this existential guilt inflicted upon oneself by the alter ego. Jaspers considers several dualistic systems of guilt, as remorse, forgiving, and the penitential systems of religions as attempts to relieve existential guilt. The psychopathology of delusional guilt in some severe depressive states demonstrates a great deal of these tormenting phenomena (Tellenbach 1980).

Jaspers made a separate category of haphazard (also translated as incident, chance, accident, coincidence). He says the world is both at random and necessarily given, chaotic and coherent. Again religions have tried to overcome these antinomies, i.e., by the Christian belief in predestination.

To the better or worse, haphazard may influence human fate. It is suffered not constellated and it requires taking a stance. By posing the unforeseen, it forces the individual to decide, to use the freedom left to exert will and constitute value. Trauma research has evidenced that it matters whether it is man-made or caused incidentally (Fiedler 2008). Man-made torture seems to be different from the category of limit situation by a haphazard accident. Severe trauma can reduce the capability of a person to cope with a situation to a degree that the ability to respond positively is no longer pertained.

Death respectively finality in life and of life is another category of limit situation . It is the contrast to striving, endeavor, development, and reproduction. Jaspers has conceived this category in a radical sense implying not only individual but also finality of mankind and the universe. It is with this category of limit situation that a political notion can be felt in Jaspers writings when he acknowledges the soldier’s fear of death as existential limit situation as if it were not man-made. This notion probably arisen vis-à-vis the World War I may be seen critically today. Finality as such and imminent death as a natural entity are existential limit conditions; death posed by politics is not intrinsic to existence.

The category of suffering (pathos) originally was meant by Jaspers to be part of all other categories. Later it was conceived as a separate, independent, and predominant category. Its meaning gravitates about the Greek term pathos, i.e., existential forms of passivity, being the object not active part in a process. Suffering or pathos in this sense is an existential feature not evadable, suspended to a certain degree but never absolutely in self-efficacious acting. Jaspers concludes that man generally dies before his objectives are finalized. One may cope with this limit condition rather than situation by believing in eternal life or by negating all meaning and purpose in a stance of nihilism.

There are paradigmatic ways of reacting to these antinomian structures of existence: insecurity, denial, or several forms of evading. Man’s foremost way to protect himself against limit situations is the accommodation or even retreat in a “protective shelter” (my home is my castle). Jaspers uses this metaphor to characterize the role of religious faith and ideological convictions, personal styles of living, and protective relationships to put off limit situations. He calls this type of existence to “crawl under” in a “stronghold within boundaries” because this type of existence has to pay off with restricted development. The term expresses contempt since Jaspers considers the challenge of limit situations to be taken. Limit situations destroy the home and make it uninhabitable. Jaspers uses the metaphor of a mussel that has lost its shell. Limit situations according to Jaspers enlighten the paradoxical structure of existence and they call for what has been named existential turn up, i.e., to reach a higher level of self-awareness and depth of feeling in case the limit situation is mastered.

11.3 Transfer to Psychopathology and Psychotherapy

Phenomenologically oriented psychopathologists have resumed Jaspers concept with different transcriptions to particular syndromes. The standard limit situation stipulated by Tellenbach (1980) for the entry into melancholic depression is the lagging behind one’s self set standards and being hemmed in these standards unable to modify or question them. The protecting mussel shell then turns to a prison.

Another equivalent paradigmatic failure to master a limit situation in psychoses may be the principal indeterminacy of the definition of interpersonally exchanged meaning exemplified, e.g., in language disorders of psychotic patients. The indeterminacy of meaning of any language as manifested in translation (Quine 1960; Schönknecht and Mundt 2013) is not a fault or mishap but essential to the creative use of language. Schizophrenia patients with their under-structured perceptive, cognitive, and emotional organization may lose track of common sense meaning if addressed with a multiply determined joke or irony in a conversation as in the comprehensive context of existential challenges, a paradigmatic limit situation.

11.4 From the Static to the Dynamic Model of Situation in Psychopathology

Glatzel (1978) has presented a little known concept of interactional psychopathology which attributes to the social other (partner, work mate, psychotherapist) some co-responsibility for the patient’s limit situation both in causing and healing. Furthermore he suggested a dynamic model of limit situation influenced by gestalt psychological principles consisting of four stages. Situation in this sense is not “outside” the self but merges perception and intention to a unity of these two components. On a first stage, restriction of meaningful perceptual elements sharpens the focus in case of pathological development, i.e., to a delusional perception. On a second stage, the delusional definition of the situation loses the future bound openness of perception and intention. On a third stage, the situation becomes a monothematic paranoid complex and on the fourth stage the definition of situation loses its perceptual common sense context and becomes definitely delusional.

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Apr 6, 2017 | Posted by in PSYCHOLOGY | Comments Off on Jaspers Concept of “Limit Situation”: Extensions and Therapeutic Applications
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