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The existential philosophy of Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers was a very influential existential philosopher. His theories embody both instrumentalism and determinism.
Who is Karl Jaspers? Karl Jaspers was a very influential existential philosopher who lived between 1883 and 1969. And his work is actually still highly relevant for our thinking about technology. And especially, because it embodies elements from both instrumental and determinism. So what does he think about technology? Jaspers started out with, you could say, a highly deterministic and negative view of technology. In his philosophy, technology alienates humans from themselves, because it leads to a mass culture, mass rule in society. The argumentation is as follows. Because of technology, ever more people can live on this earth.
And this requires the mechanization of labor, a bureaucratic organization of our society, resulting in a society that’s organized as a machine itself, an apparatus in which humans cannot live as authentic individuals anymore, but only as fullfillers of a function. Moreover, our material world becomes a mass world and a functional world in itself as well. Things that are there in a mass, identical to each other, lacking authenticity, not asking for attachment, do not enable us to live authentically as authentic human beings. So in sum, we lose ourself according to Heidegger. We become cogs in a machine of technology, just like the movie Modern Times of Charlie Chaplin shows. Jaspers calls this the demonism of technology.
Technology is something like a demon, out of control, steering society in a way that nobody actually asked for.
So technology is something bad then, you could ask yourself. Well, in fact, not, even though this might sound a bit strange. Especially after the Second World War, Jaspers came to the conclusion that we have called for this demon ourselves. He now starts to understand technology in terms of the limits of technology. And so what can technology not do? What are its boundaries? And one of the most important limits of technology, he says, is that technology is a means, not an end. Technology cannot set its own goals. It’s dependent on human beings for the goals for which it is used, which means that the demonism of technology comes from the fact that we treat technology as an end in itself.
Well, in fact, it is only a means for ends set by human beings. Ultimately, Jaspers says, and the atomic bomb shows this to its highest extent, technology is neutral and needs guidance, but we can only guide it from reason, not from the scientific thinking, but from calculation or technology. We need to think as ourselves. And that is what reason does. Only then we can regain sovereignty towards technology. We can be in charge again. We need to be aware, technology is ultimately a means to an end. And we should set the ends.
So this is a highly interesting view on technology, I think. It’s also worthwhile to take a critical look at it. And what you see here in fact, I think, is that Karl Jaspers, when he starts to think about technologies, often reduces technologies to the conditions that lie behind them. And he then starts to think about the conditions as if he were thinking about the technologies themselves. For instance, if he thinks about what it means to live in this mass world, he reduces the technologies, the things in our social world, to the production system behind it. And they condition the things that we have. But of course, dealing with a mass object does not require us to be an anonymous person.
A technology that we use can still constitute authentic, new relations to other people. Also, for the limits of technology, can we reduce technology to the intentions of humans, that it is an instrument for the goals set by human beings? Often, in fact, technologies do much more than only what humans intended. Cars are in fact a very good example here. Cars seem to make us free. We can go wherever we want at high speed. But in the meantime, it has changed the world.
Cars have changed the layout of our cities, have shaped a separation between labor and leisure, because we can live further away from our work that we used to live, which gives us a different social environment at home than our social world at work. It determines how we spend our holidays, how far we go. And so people even say it determines how many kids we can have, because that do not fit many more than three kids at the back couch of our cars. So we cannot reduce technologies to the intentions that humans have put into them, just like we cannot reduce technologies to the mass production system behind them. In order to understand what technologies do, more is needed.
And we will see that later in this course.
In this video we introduce you to several important concepts of Karl Jaspers’ philosophy of technology. Have another look at the glossary in STEP 1.2 to familiarise yourself with these concepts and read more about Karl Jaspers below.

Karl Jaspers and the demonism of technology

Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883 – 1969) was one of the most important representatives of existential philosophy, who also developed an existential philosophy of technology. His early conception of technology, which he put forth in Man in the Modern Age (1931), revolved around the transformation of human society into a mass, mechanised culture. His initial assessment of this transformation was negative. He wrote of the demonism of technology, describing technology as an independent power which had been summoned into existence by human beings but which now has turned against them. According to Jaspers, technology transforms human society into a mass culture, alienating human beings from themselves and from the world around them.
Jaspers considered mass-rule a byproduct of the close interaction between technological development and population growth, which results in a vast number of human beings whose existence becomes utterly dependent on technology. This dependency requires a quite specific social and cultural formation. Besides a mechanisation of labour, society needs a smoothly operating bureaucratic organisation in order to keep functioning. Society becomes a machine itself, described by Jaspers as The Apparatus.
This apparatus of workers, machines, and bureaucracy increasingly determines how human beings carry out their daily lives. It has two different but related effects. First, its system of mass production fosters a homogenisation of the material environment in which human beings live. No attachment is possible to mass produced objects, which only exist as exemplars of a general form and are primarily present in terms of their functionality. Second, the apparatus approaches human beings not as unique individuals, but as fulfillers of functions who are in principle interchangeable. Both effects of the technological transformation of society impede human beings from being present as authentic existences, and from living their lives authentically and in existential proximity to the world around them.
After World War II, Jaspers’ analysis of technology changed course. Rather than viewing technology as a threat to authentic human existence, in The Origin and Goal of History (1949) and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (1958), Jaspers saw technology as what was at stake in it. He concluded that technology is ultimately neutral or no more than a means for human goals, since it is incapable of generating its own goals. This neutrality makes human beings responsible for what they make of technology: Technology requires human guidance. The task for human beings is to reassert sovereignty over technology.
Jaspers’ later perspective allowed him to discern not only a threatening side of technology but also ways in which it opened up new existential possibilities. These include new proximity to reality, by understanding the laws of nature lying behind the functioning of technology; recognition of the beauty of technological constructs; and making use of the possibilities opened up by media and transportation technologies, which allow humans to experience the Earth as one whole for which they can feel responsible.


Jaspers, K. (1931). Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Berlin: Göschen (Band 1000). Translation: Man in the Modern Age (1957), Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Jaspers, K. (1949), Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zurich: Artemis. Translation: The Origin and Goal of History (1953), London: Routledge
Jaspers, K. (1958), Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. Munich: Piper. Translation: The Future of Mankind (1961), also as: The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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Philosophy of Technology and Design: Shaping the Relations Between Humans and Technologies

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