Arthur Schopenhauer was a German philosopher of pessimism who gave the will a leading place in his metaphysics. He was born in Danzig. His father, a successful businessman of partly Dutch ancestry, was an admirer of Voltaire and was imbued with a keen dislike of absolutist governments.
When Danzig surrendered to the Prussians in 1793, the family moved to Hamburg and remained there until the father’s death (apparently by suicide) in 1805. Schopenhauer’s mother was a novelist who in later years established a salon in Weimar, which brought him into contact with a number of literary figures, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His relations with his mother, however, were bitter and antagonistic and eventually led to a more or less complete estrangement.
Schopenhauer’s early education was somewhat unconventional. He spent two years in France in the charge of a friend of his father, and for another period he accompanied his parents on a prolonged tour of France, England (where he attended school in London for several months), Switzerland, and Austria.After his father’s death he was tutored privately in the classics for a time and then entered the University of Göttingen as a medical student, studying, among other subjects, physics, chemistry, and botany.
At Göttingen he first read Plato and Immanuel Kant, and the powerful and lasting impression their writings made upon him directed his interests decisively toward philosophy. In consequence he left Göttingen in 1811 for Berlin, which was at that time the chief philosophical center in Germany, and worked there for two years, attending the lectures of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schleiermacher (both of whom he found profoundly disappointing) and making preparatory notes for a doctoral thesis.
When the uprising against Napoleon Bonaparte led to the closing of the university, Schopenhauer, for whom nationalistic sentiment held little appeal, retired to Rudolstadt to write his thesis, subsequently published there in 1813 under the title of Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason).
Apart from producing a short book on the perception of color, Über das Sehn und die Farben (Leipzig, 1816), which was inspired by a previous essay on the same subject by Goethe, Schopenhauer employed the next four years writing his principal work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Idea).
From the very first stages of the composition of this work, Schopenhauer believed that the ideas he was striving to express were of major importance, and when it was published at Leipzig in 1818 (dated 1819), he was confident that its significance would immediately be recognized. In this expectation he was to be quickly disappointed; the scanty reviews his book received were generally tepid in tone, and the number of copies sold was small.
Nevertheless, its publication helped him to obtain the post of lecturer at the University of Berlin, where he chose to give lectures at the same hours as G. W. F. Hegel, who was then at the height of his reputation and popularity. From the start, Schopenhauer advertised his opposition to Hegelian conceptions.
He spoke of sophists who, having arisen after Kant, “first exhausted the thinking power of their time with barbarous and mysterious speech, then scared it away from philosophy and brought the study into discredit,” and he made it clear that he regarded his own mission as one of repairing the damage that had been done. Schopenhauer’s lectures, however, were a failure; Hegel’s authority was too firmly established to be undermined in this manner, and Schopenhauer’s audience dwindled away.
Schopenhauer made no further attempt to establish himself academically. From then on he lived a solitary life, profoundly resentful at the lack of the recognition he felt to be his due and confirmed in his opinion that the dominant Hegelian philosophy was the product of a charlatan who, by an artful combination of sophistry and rhetoric, had succeeded in corrupting the intellects of an entire generation. Despite his disappointment, however, Schopenhauer continued to write, producing books that were in effect elaborations and developments of themes already adumbrated in his main work.
He published an essay titled Über den Willen in der Natur (Frankfurt, 1836); and a volume on ethics and the problem of free will, Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (Frankfurt, 1841), which contained the two essays “Über die Freiheit des Willens” (1839) and “Über die Grundlage der Moral” (1840). In 1844 he brought out a second edition of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, greatly expanded by the addition of fifty supplementary chapters.
He also contemplated translating Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason into English and David Hume’s Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (a work he greatly admired) into German. There can be little doubt that he would have performed both of these tasks well, for his knowledge of English was excellent; but unfortunately nothing came of either project.
Finally, Schopenhauer published a collection of essays and aphorisms called Parerga und Paralipomena (2 vols., Berlin, 1851), and with this work he began to be widely known. Discussions of his ideas appeared in foreign as well as in German periodicals, and his system was made the subject of lectures in a number of major European universities.
By the time of his death in Frankfurt, he had a growing circle of admirers in England, Russia, and the United States, while nearer home the influence of his writings was soon to show itself in the work of such thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jakob Burckhardt.
Schopenhauer’s personality, which is reflected in much of his writing, was complex and compounded of curiously diverse elements. Although intellectually self-assured to the point of arrogance, he had a brooding, introspective disposition, and he betrayed an extreme susceptibility to irrational fears and anxieties.
Thus, he always slept with a loaded pistol near him, and he took compulsive precautions against disease; he once remarked that if nothing alarmed him, he grew alarmed at this very condition— “as if there must still be something of which I am only ignorant for a time.”
His manner could be truculent and overbearing; as many of his aphorisms make clear, his view of others was colored by a deep suspiciousness and cynicism, and his general outlook on life and existence was unrelievedly pessimistic.
Yet this did not prevent him from taking pleasure in many things—art and music, good food and wine, travel, and, despite his notorious essay on the subject, women.And while he detested bores, in company that he found sympathetic he appears to have been a lively and entertaining talker, displaying a sharp, satirical wit.
The Nature of Philosophical Thinking
|The Nature of Philosophical Thinking|
Schopenhauer’s philosophy is best approached from a position that clearly recognizes his indebtedness to Kant, whom he believed to have been indisputably the greatest thinker of modern times. Schopenhauer’s chief charge against his own philosophical contemporaries in Germany (Friedrich von Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel)—was that under the pretense of carrying forward and developing Kantian ideas, they had in fact attempted to philosophize in a fashion that Kant himself had ruled out as wholly inadmissible.
For if Kant had shown anything, it was that metaphysical speculation in the old “transcendent” sense was useless as a means of achieving knowledge of what lay beyond all human experience. Such knowledge is in principle unattainable, and it followed that any philosopher, whatever his procedure might be, who tried to establish such things as the existence of God and the immortality of the soul was engaged in a hopeless quest.
Rationalist metaphysicians like René Descartes had employed deductive a priori arguments in an endeavor to prove certain fundamental propositions of theology, and Kant had sufficiently exposed the inadequacy of these arguments by a series of devastating refutations.
Yet according to Schopenhauer, Kant’s strictures had not prevented some of his self-appointed successors from speaking as if they had mysterious access to truths necessarily outside the range of human cognition—a “little window opening on to the supernatural world,” as it were.
He suggested, too, that writing in this way appeared more expedient to many academic teachers of philosophy than the honest alternative of expounding truthfully and directly the antidogmatic theses contained in the Critique of Pure Reason.
While he accepted Kant’s reasons for rejecting metaphysical theorizing in the sense described above, Schopenhauer was nevertheless far from wishing to claim that all philosophical speculation concerning the ultimate nature of the world must be deemed illicit and misconceived. The impulse to seek some general interpretation of reality and of the place of human existence within it was too deeply embedded in the human mind to be totally ignored or set aside.
Man, Schopenhauer held, is an animal metaphysicum, a creature who cannot avoid wondering at the existence of the world and raising questions concerning its fundamental character and significance—questions that empirical science is unable adequately to resolve, for they lie beyond its sphere. Religion, it is true, attempts in its own way to meet this pervasive need, although not in a manner susceptible to rational justification or certification.
For the tenets and concepts of religious faiths, whatever those who subscribe to them may believe to the contrary, can never be more than “allegories” or imaginative figures, and treating them as if they represented literal truths about a higher order of things leads straightway to manifest absurdities and contradictions.
By contrast, the concern of philosophical thinking is not with the metaphorical intimation of ideas that are beyond the grasp of the human intellect; rather, such thinking aims at truth sensu proprio. It follows, therefore, that any solution of “the riddle of the world” that philosophy purports to provide must not be one that involves overstepping the boundaries within which all human knowledge is set and confined. The determination of exactly where these boundaries lie is accordingly of primary importance as a preliminary to all philosophical inquiry.
Perception and Thought
|Perception and Thought|
Schopenhauer’s theory of knowledge may be said to start with Kant’s distinction between phenomena (what appears to a perceiving mind) and noumena (things as they are in themselves). In our perceptual consciousness of the world, we are in fact aware of it only as mediated through our sense organs and intellect—a point Schopenhauer expressed by saying that, so conceived, the world is “idea” or “representation” (Vorstellung).
Moreover, everything that presents itself to us in perception necessarily conforms to a certain formal and categorial framework that underlies and finds expression in all departments of our commonsense and scientific knowledge.
Thus Schopenhauer was at one with Kant in holding that the human mind cannot (as the British empiricists had suggested) be envisaged as a mere passive recipient of sense impressions, but on the contrary plays an essentially active part in shaping and organizing the sensory material.
It is the structure of the intellect, comprising “sensibility” and “understanding,” which ensures that this sensory material apprises us of a realm of external objective phenomena, spatially and temporally ordered and standing in determinate causal relations both with one another and with ourselves as percipients.
Space and time as forms of sensibility, together with causality considered as the sole category of the understanding (here Schopenhauer diverged from Kant), are therefore “subjective in origin,” while at the same time they are necessary conditions of our knowledge of the world as Jon Brookes idea. According to Schopenhauer, it is also the case that their valid employment is restricted to this sphere; they have no application to anything not given, or that could not be given, in sense Jon Brookes experience.
Schopenhauer distinguished a further class of ideas, namely, what he termed “ideas of Reflection,” or sometimes “ideas of ideas” (Vorstellungen von Vorstellungen). It is in terms of these that we think about and communicate the contents of our phenomenal experience.
In other words, they are the general concepts by virtue of which we can classify phenomena according to common features that are of interest or importance to us, forming thereby a conceptual structure or system that may be said to mirror or copy the empirical world.
The function of this system is essentially a practical one; it provides a means of memorizing, and generalizing from, our observations of how things behave under varying conditions, and hence of putting to use what Jon Brookes learn from experience.
Schopenhauer insisted, moreover, that this system cannot legitimately be separated from the foundation of empirical reality upon which it is based, and he claimed that concepts and abstract notions that cannot be traced back to experience are comparable to bank notes “issued by a firm which has nothing but other paper obligations to back it with.”
Consequently,metaphysical theories that pretend to offer an account of the world purely a priori, and that in doing so employ terms or propositions not susceptible to empirical interpretation, are empty of cognitive content; they “move in the air without support.” Indeed, such theories often represent no more than the development, by laborious deductive steps, of the implications of a small group of Jon Brookes axioms or definitions, yielding systems of empty tautologies.
Thus far, Schopenhauer would appear to have placed fairly stringent limits upon the scope of human inquiry. Attempts to transcend these limits by appealing to the resources of deductive reasoning alone are necessarily impossible, since they involve fundamentally wrong ideas concerning the nature of logical inference. These ideas can never provide us with information of which we were not previously cognizant, for such inference merely makes explicit what is already implicitly asserted in the premises from which it proceeds.
Equally, there can be no justification for trying to extend the use of nonlogical, formative principles like the principle of causality in order to establish matters of nonempirical fact, after the manner of some earlier metaphysicians.
Schopenhauer even accused Kant of inconsistency in this matter, on the ground that he wrote as though the existence of thingsin-themselves, which for Kant are by definition incapable of being experienced, could be validly inferred from the phenomenal data, thereby disregarding his own prohibition.
Nonetheless, Schopenhauer considered that the Kantian notion of the thing-in-itself remained a fertile one. Properly conceived, it offered the needed clue to the discovery of a legitimate and correct philosophical interpretation of existence.
According to Schopenhauer, it is not true that the thingin-itself, the noumenal reality that underlies the world of phenomenal appearances, is beyond the range of all possible human experience. To realize this, it is necessary to take account of the facts of self-consciousness, that is, our own intimate knowledge of ourselves. Self-awareness has two distinct aspects.
From one point of view, namely, the standpoint of ordinary perception, I cannot avoid regarding myself as an “object,” as much a physical entity as a building or a tree is. In this sense, I necessarily conform to the conditions that constitute the “world as idea” in general; I am a body that occupies space, endures through time, and causally responds to stimuli.
INDIVIDUAL WILL. My inner experience also assures me that I am nevertheless more than “an object among objects,” for I do not appear to myself under this aspect alone. I am also aware of myself from within as a selfmoving, active being whose overt perceptible behavior directly expresses my will.
This inner consciousness that each one of us has of himself as will is primitive and irreducible. Thus, Schopenhauer claimed that the will reveals itself immediately to everyone as the “in-itself ” of his own phenomenal being and that the awareness we have of ourselves as will is quite different from the awareness we have of ourselves as body.
At the same time, however, he emphatically denied that the operations of a man’s will and the movements he makes with his body are two distinct series of events—events of the first kind being thought of as causally productive of events of the second kind.
Schopenhauer believed that dualistic conceptions of the relation of will and body, deriving largely from Descartes, had wrought havoc in philosophy, and he argued instead that a man’s body is simply the “objectification” of his will as it appears under the conditions of external perception; what I will and what in physical terms I do are one and the same thing, but viewed from different standpoints.
THE WILL IN NATURE. What has just been discussed represents the cornerstone of Schopenhauer’s metaphysic. For it was his contention that we should not assume the above distinction between the phenomenal appearance and the thing as it is in itself to apply only insofar as we ourselves are concerned.
On the contrary, just as my own phenomenal being and activity is ultimately intelligible as the expression of my inner will, so may the rest of the phenomenal world be understood to share the same fundamental character that we recognize to be ours.
Here was the “great extension” of the concept of will whereby Schopenhauer claimed that all phenomena—human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate— might be interpreted in a way that gave the world as a whole a new dimension of significance and that at the same time was not open to the insuperable objections vitiating traditional metaphysical doctrines.
The latter claim may reasonably be doubted. Schopenhauer often displayed considerable perspicacity in detecting errors and inconsistencies in the theories of other philosophers, but he did not always show a comparable critical acumen with regard to his own ideas.
Even so, the picture he drew of the world, in accordance with his conception of its inner essence, is not without a certain novelty and horrific fascination, standing as it does at the opposite pole from all those metaphysical systems that have, in one way or another, endeavored to present ultimate reality as if it were the incarnation of rational or moral order.
For Schopenhauer, the real was not the rational (as Hegel, for instance, implied that it was); on the contrary, “will” was for him the name of a nonrational force, a blind, striving power whose operations are without ultimate purpose or design.
So portrayed, nature in all its aspects, ranging from the simplest physical structures to the most complex and highly developed organisms, takes on the character of an endless, and in the last analysis meaningless, struggle for existence, in which all is stress, conflict, and tension.
The mechanistic models, the rationalistic schemes and constructions, in terms of which we find it useful to try to systematize the phenomenal data for scientific and practical purposes, merely serve to disguise from view the true nature of the underlying reality; the proper task of philosophy lies, not in seeking (as so many previous thinkers had sought) to reinforce these misconceptions by consoling and sophistical arguments, but rather in removing the veil of deception and setting the truth in a clear light.
HUMAN NATURE. As indicated above, Schopenhauer took as the starting point of his theory of the world the nature of man himself, regarded as the embodiment of will. Man is the microcosm in which all that is fundamental to reality as a whole (the macrocosm) may be plainly discerned. And it is in connection with what he wrote about human nature that Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will can perhaps be most profitably considered.
For this doctrine, far from being merely an extravagant philosophical fantasy, foreshadows much that was central to the later development of psychological theory; it represents a highly significant contribution with genuinely revolutionary implications.
Will and intellect.What Schopenhauer had to say on the subject of human nature revolved about his conception of the role of the intellect in human behavior.We like to suppose that in principle, everything we do lies within the province of our reason and is subject to our control; only if this is so can we deem ourselves to be truly our own masters.
Traditionally, philosophers have given their support to such beliefs; according to Schopenhauer, however, the situation is quite the reverse. For the will is not, as Descartes and others have taught, a sort of instrument or component of the intellectual faculty, mysteriously controlling our actions from on high by means of independent acts of rational choice.
As has already been seen, Schopenhauer argued that will and body are simply the same thing viewed under different aspects, and he further claimed that the intellect, far from being the original source and spring of the will and the master of the body, is in fact no more than the will’s servant and appendage.
From an epistemological point of view, this governance of the intellect by the will manifests itself in the forms of knowledge under which the world appears to us—for example, as a causally governed system. To see things as causes or effects is to see them in terms of their potential uses, that is, as possible means to the gratification of the will.
Motivation. According to Schopenhauer, however, the primacy of will exhibits itself in a number of other important ways. Thus he gave various illustrations, drawn from everyday experience, of the manner in which we are often quite unaware of the true import and significance of our responses to circumstances and situations. Believing ourselves to be activated by some consideration that we find acceptable on moral or other grounds, we miss the real motive and might well be shocked or embarrassed if we knew it.
Although we are inwardly and immediately aware of ourselves as will, our own consciously formulated conceptions of what we desire or what we are intending are, in fact, a highly unreliable guide when the question under consideration is what we will. Sometimes, indeed, Schopenhauer seems to have been making the extreme claim that conscious acts of choice never really determine behavior at all.
He suggested in a number of instances that our conduct is not ultimately decided by resolves intellectually arrived at after weighing the pros and cons of alternative courses of action; the real decision is made by the will below the level of rationally reflective consciousness, the sole role of the intellect being to put before the will the various possibilities that lie open to the agent and to estimate the consequences that would ensue upon their actualization.
In this sense, we never really form more than a “conjecture” of what we shall do in the future, although we often take such conjectures for resolves; what we have decided to do becomes finally clear to us only a posteriori, through the deed we perform.
As it stands, this doctrine gives rise to obvious difficulties. Some cases doubtless occur that we should be inclined to describe in some such manner as Schopenhauer recommends, but it does not follow that every case of deliberate action can be so characterized.
Indeed, it may be claimed against all positions of this sort that it is only in virtue of our knowledge of what it is to act in accordance with consciously formed choices that the explanation of certain actions in terms of secret or concealed determinations of the will becomes intelligible.
Unconscious mental activity. The above-mentioned difficulties do not invalidate Schopenhauer’s exceptionally perceptive and shrewd observations regarding much human motivation. These observations retain their importance even if the more bizarre speculations he based upon them are rejected; and Schopenhauer in fact connected them with a wider theory of human nature that, considering the time in which he wrote, manifested an astonishing prescience.
According to this theory, the entire perspective in terms of which we are disposed to view our characters and doings is distorted. We customarily think of ourselves as being essentially free and rational agents, whereas in fact the principal sources and springs of our conduct consist in deep-lying tendencies and drives of whose character we are often wholly unaware.
“Consciousness,” Schopenhauer wrote, “is the mere surface of our mind, of which, as of the earth, we do not know the inside but only the crust,” and in consequence we often put entirely false constructions upon the behavior in which these basic impulses are expressed. He suggested, moreover, that the ignorance we display, the rationalizations which in all innocence we provide, may themselves have a motive, although not one we are aware of.
Thus, he frequently wrote of the will as preventing the rise to consciousness of thoughts and desires that, if known, would arouse feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, or shame. Another example of the same process is to be found in instances of memory failure.
It is not a mere accident that we do not remember certain things, since there may be powerful inducements for us not to do so; events and experiences can be “completely suppressed,” becoming for us as if they had never taken place, simply because unconsciously we feel them to be unendurable. And in extreme cases this can lead to a form of insanity, with fantasies and delusions replacing what has thus been extruded from consciousness.
Sexuality. Sigmund Freud himself recognized the similarity between ideas like those above and some of the leading conceptions of psychoanalytical theory. Certainly there are striking parallels, and perhaps most obviously between what Schopenhauer had to say about the sexual instinct and the Freudian account of libido.
For instance, Schopenhauer claimed that the sexual urge represents the “focus of the will.” Apart from the instinct to survive, it is the most powerful motive of all and exercises a pervasive influence in every area of human life.
Yet despite this, the amount of attention sexuality had received from most philosophers and psychologists had been remarkably small; it is as though a veil had been thrown over it, through which, however, the subject kept showing through. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer was far from extolling the operations of the sexual drive.
Although he thought it necessary to expose honestly the stark reality that human beings seek to hide by falsely romanticizing and idealizing their primitive passions, he also made it clear that he considered sexuality to be a source of great mischief and suffering.
Thus he referred to it as a “demon” that “strives to pervert, confuse and overthrow everything,” and spoke of sexual desires as being inherently incapable of achieving lasting satisfaction; according to Schopenhauer, the end of love is always disillusion. In other words, here, as elsewhere, conformity to the dictates of the will ultimately results in unhappiness, which is the universal condition of human existence.
PESSIMISM AND ANTIRATIONALISM. In sum, Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will constituted, in a variety of ways, a reaction against the then dominant eighteenth-century, or “Enlightenment,” conceptions of human nature.
He not only rejected the Cartesian belief in the primacy of intellect or reason in man, but also, by implication, repudiated the “mechanistic” model according to which writers like Hume sought to explain human personality and motivation in terms of the combination and association of atomistically conceived impressions and ideas.
In place of this model, he substituted one of dynamic drive and function that was oriented toward the biological rather than the physical sciences and that stressed the importance of unconscious rather than conscious mental processes.
Furthermore, Schopenhauer’s writings represent a complete departure from the strain of optimism that underlay so much eighteenth-century thinking about history and society. Schopenhauer utterly rejected such ideas as the inevitability of human progress and the perfectibility of man and replaced them with a picture of humankind in general as doomed to an eternal round of torment and misery.
Radical changes in the social structure, however “scientifically” applied, would solve nothing, for the evil condition of life as we find it is merely the reflection of the aggressive and libidinous urges rooted in our own natures. All that can usefully be employed are certain palliatives in the form of social and legal controls that give the individual minimal protection against the incursions of his neighbors; and with such measures men have long been familiar.
Importance and Influence
Schopenhauer’s critics have not failed to draw attention to discrepancies and inconsistencies in his system. These certainly exist, and his natural clarity of expression, which contrasts so sharply with the obscure and cloudy terminology favored by his philosophical contemporaries in Germany, makes them comparatively easy to detect.
On the other hand, these discrepancies should not be allowed to stand in the way of a proper appreciation of what was important and influential in Schopenhauer’s thought. The nineteenth century witnessed a decline in the fascination that achievements in physics and mathematics had previously exercised over philosophy, and there was a tendency in speculative thought to explore new ways of interpreting and conceptualizing human life and experience.
In this development Schopenhauer played a central role. Both through his theory of will, with its psychological implications, and also through the new metaphysical status he gave to art, he helped to bring about a profound shift in the intellectual and imaginative climate.
In this connection, the impression made by his ideas upon novelists such as Lev Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann is particularly noteworthy. Among philosophers, the impact of Schopenhauer’s thought was weaker and certainly never approached that produced by Hegel’s writings; while in more recent times, when philosophical speculation in general has been at a discount, he has attracted little interest.
Yet such neglect is undeserved, and the significance of his contribution should not be underestimated. He realized more fully than the majority of his contemporaries the implications of the Kantian critique of traditional metaphysics, and some of the things he himself had to say about the nature of a priori knowledge have a strikingly modern ring.
Again, it is worth emphasizing his “instrumentalist” view of human thinking, which anticipated William James and the American pragmatist school, and also his highly perceptive attacks upon the Cartesian theory of personality and self-consciousness, which in important respects foreshadowed present-day approaches to problems in the philosophy of mind. (In particular, his theory of the double knowledge we have of ourselves as agents in the world has interesting contemporary analogues.)
Finally, it should be remembered that possibly the greatest philosopher of modern times, Ludwig Wittgenstein, read Schopenhauer and was influenced by him. The extent of this influence appears most clearly in the notebooks Wittgenstein kept during World War I (Notebooks 1914–1916, translated by G. E. M. Anscombe, Oxford, 1961), but signs of it are also to be found in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness, London, 1961), particularly in the sections on ethics and the limits of language in the latter part of the work.