Gonzalo de Cadenas-Santiago

Director de Análisis Macroeconómico y Financiero de MAPFRE Economics


The current global state of affairs, known to us as a pandemic, is gradually leading us to seek out touchstones that transcend economics, politics and biology. Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) was first and foremost a social psychiatrist. He revolutionized the concept of uncertainty, focusing less on uncertainty itself and more on humankind’s relationship with it. For Karl Jaspers, uncertainty is not to be overcome but understood, as it is by understanding the limit of our knowledge that we are freed from its unfathomable nature.

There are different ways to deal with universal limit situations like one we find ourselves in today. “We can avoid or deny them. We can also find a response in the form of scientific explanations, social norms, rituals and habits.” Jaspers said that in limit situations like this one, “science can only do good if guided by the knowledge not to know rather than by the idea of a problem that needs immediate fixing.”

“Jaspers argued that limit situations expose the uncertainty that undergirds and shapes human existence. He was convinced that people can’t live without conflict and suffering.” He was also convinced that people must die tragically in order to normalize their own sense of this uncertainty, which they have no way of rationalizing.

“Alternatively,” the article continues, “we can develop a consciousness of this failure — what Jaspers called ‘limit consciousness’ or knowledge of non-knowledge. This knowledge might seem paradoxical, but it is essential to our lives and deeply familiar.”

It looks like a million deaths is the number required to create this tragic and liberating limit situation and bring us closer to the acknowledgement that we know only that we know nothing. Karl was a great admirer of Socrates.

At this time of global social hysteria, his approach could be a very good touchstone for facing the months ahead.