Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788 – September 21, 1860) was a German philosopher. He was one of the most important 19th century philosophers, most famous for his work The World as Will and Representation. He is known for having espoused a sort of philosophical pessimism that saw life as being essentially evil and futile , but saw hope in aesthetics, sympathy for others and ascetic living. His ideas profoundly influenced the fields of philosophy, psychology, and literature.
Schopenhauer was born in Stutthof (Sztutowo) near Danzig (Gdańsk), a mostly German speaking city and exclave of Poland, surrounded by the Kingdom of Prussia. He was the son of Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer and Johanna Schopenhauer, a middle class mercantile family of Dutch heritage, although they had strong feelings against any kind of nationalism. Indeed, the name Arthur was selected by his father especially because it was the same in English, German, and French. His parents were both from the city, and Johanna was an author as well. After the city fell to Prussia during the second partition of Poland in 1793 the Schopenhauer family fled to Hamburg; in 1807 Schopenhauer's father died, possibly by suicide, and Johanna moved to Weimar. Schopenhauer never got along with his mother; when the writer Goethe, who was a friend of Johanna Schopenhauer, told her that he thought her son was destined for great things, Johanna objected: she had never heard there could be two geniuses in a single family. Schopenhauer studied at the University of Göttingen and was awarded a PhD from the University of Jena. In 1820, Schopenhauer became a lecturer at the University of Berlin; it was there that his famous quarrel with Hegel began.
Schopenhauer was influenced by Friedrich Schelling, called himself a Kantian, and despised Hegel — he formulated a pessimistic philosophy that gained importance and support after the failure of the German and Austrian revolutions of 1848.
Schopenhauer's starting point was Kant's division of the universe into phenomenon and noumenon, claiming that the noumenon was Will and the most important since it is the inner content and the driving force of the world. For Schopenhauer, human will had ontological primacy over the intellect; in other words, desire is understood to be prior to thought, and, in a parallel sense, "will" is said to be prior to "being". In solving/alleviating the fundamental problems of life, Schopenhauer was rare among philosophers in considering philosophy and logic less important (or "less effective") than art, certain types of charitable practice ("loving kindness", in his terms), and certain forms of religious discipline; Schopenhauer concluded that discursive thought (such as philosophy and logic) could neither touch nor transcend the nature of desire -- i.e., the will. In The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer posited that humans living in the realm of objects are living in the realm of desire , and thus are eternally tormented by that desire (The role of desire in life has a similar role in the religions of Vedanta-Hinduism and Buddhism, and Schopenhauer draws attention to these similarities himself).
While Schopenhauer's philosophy may sound rather mystical in such a summary, his methodology was resolutely empirical, rather than "speculative", or "transcendental":
“Philosophy... is a science, and as such has no articles of faith; accordingly, in it nothing can be assumed as existing except what is either positively given empirically, or demonstrated through indubitable conclusions.”
- Schopenhauer, Parerga & Paralipomena, vol. i, pg. 106., E.F.J. Payne Translation
“This actual world of what is knowable, in which we are and which is in us, remains both the material and the limit of our consideration.”
- Schopenhauer, World as Will & Representation, vol. i, pg. 273, E.F.J. Payne Translation
Schopenhauer's identification of the Kantian noumenon (i.e., the actually existing entity) with Will deserves some explanation. The noumenon was what Kant called the Ding an Sich, the "Thing in Itself", the reality that exists outside of, and the foundation of, our sensory and mental representations of an external world; in Kantian terms, those sensory and mental representations are mere phenomena. Schopenhauer's assertion that Will is this noumenon might at first instance strike some as oddly as Heraclitus's revelation that everything is made out of fire.
But Kant's philosophy was formulated as a response to the radical philosophical skepticism of David Hume and his fellow British Empiricists, who claimed that as far as we could tell there was no outside reality beyond our mental representations of it. When Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with Will, what he is saying is that we participate in the reality of an otherwise unachievable world outside the mind through Will. We cannot prove that our mental picture of an outside world corresponds with a reality by reasoning. Through Will, we know — without thinking — that the world can stimulate us. We suffer fear, or desire. These states arise involuntarily. They arise prior to reflection. They arise even when the conscious mind would prefer to hold them at bay. The rational mind is for Schopenhauer a leaf borne along in a stream of pre-reflective and largely unconscious emotion. That stream is Will; and through Will, if not through logic, we can participate in the underlying reality that lies beyond mere phenomena. It is for this reason that Schopenhauer identifies the noumenon with Will.
Schopenhauer was perhaps even more influential in his treatment of man's mind than he was in the realm of philosophy.
Philosophers have not traditionally been impressed by the tribulations of love. But Schopenhauer addressed it, and related concepts, forthrightly.
- "We should be surprised that a matter that generally plays such an important part in the life of man [love] has hitherto been almost entirely disregarded by philosophers, and lies before us as raw and untreated material."
He gave a name to a force within man which he felt invariably had precedence over reason: the Will to Life (Wille zum Leben), defined as an inherent drive within human beings, and indeed all creatures, to stay alive and to reproduce.
Schopenhauer refused to conceive of love as either trifling or accidental, but rather understood it to be an immensely powerful force lying unseen within man's psyche and dramatically shaping the world:
- "The ultimate aim of all love affairs ...is more important than all other aims in man's life; and therefore it is quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it."
- "What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation..."
These ideas foreshadowed and laid the groundwork for Darwin's theory of evolution, Nietzsche's Will to Power and Freud's concepts of the libido and the unconscious mind.
This wild and powerful drive to reproduce, however, caused suffering and pain in the world. For Schopenhauer, one way to escape the suffering inherent in a world of Will was through art.
Through art, Schopenhauer thought, the thinking subject could be jarred out of their limited, individual perspective to feel a sense of the universal directly — the "universal" in question, of course, was the will. The contest of personal desire with a world that was, by nature, inimical to its satisfaction is inevitably tragical; therefore, the highest place in art was given to tragedy. Music was also given a special status in Schopenhauer's aesthetics as it did not rely upon the medium of representation to communicate a sense of the universal. Schopenhauer believed the function of art to be a meditation on the unity of human nature, and an attempt to either demonstrate or directly communicate to the audience a certain existential angst for which most forms of entertainment — including bad art — only provided a distraction. A wide range of authors (from Thomas Hardy to Woody Allen) and artists have been influenced by this system of aesthetics, and in the 20th century this area of Schopenhauer's work garnered more attention and praise than any other.
According to Daniel Albright (2004), "Schopenhauer thought that music was the only art that did not merely copy ideas, but actually embodied the will itself."
Schopenhauer's politics were, for the most part, a much-diminished echo of his system of ethics (the latter being expressed in Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik , available in English as two separate books, On the Basis of Morality and On the Freedom of the Will ; ethics also occupies about one fourth of his central work, The World as Will and Representation). In occasional political comments in his Parerga and Paralimpomena and Manuscript Remains , Schopenhauer described himself as a proponent of limited government. What was essential, he thought, was that the state should "leave each man free to work out his own salvation", and so long as government was thus limited, he would "prefer to be ruled by a lion than one of [his] fellow rats" — i.e., a monarch. Schopenhauer did, however, share the view of Thomas Hobbes on the necessity of the state, and of state violence, to check the destructive tendencies innate to our species. Schopenhauer, by his own admission, did not give much thought to politics, and several times he writes prideful boasts of how little attention he had paid "to political affairs of [his] day". In a life that spanned several revolutions in French and German government, and a few continent-shaking wars, he did indeed maintain his aloof position of "minding not the times but the eternities".
Schopenhauer and Women
Schopenhauer is also famous for his essay Über die Weiber, in which he expressed his opposition to what he called "Teutonico-Christian stupidity" on female affairs. He claimed that "woman is by nature meant to obey", and opposed Schiller's poem in honor of women, Würde der Frauen. The essay does give two compliments however: that "women are decidedly more sober in their judgment than [men] are" and are more sympathetic to the suffering of others.
The ultra-intolerant view of women contrasts with Schopenhauer's generally liberal views on other social issues: he was strongly against taboos on issues like suicide and masochism and condemned the treatment of African slaves. This polemic on female nature has since been fiercely attacked as misogynistic. In any case, the controversial writing has influenced many, from Nietzsche to 19th century feminists. While Schopenhauer's hostility to women may tell us more about his biography than about philosophy, his biological analysis of the difference between the sexes, and their separate roles in the struggle for survival and reproduction, anticipates some of the claims that were later ventured by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists in the twentieth century.
Schopenhauer on Hegel
Schopenhauer seems to have disliked just about everything concerning his contemporary Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The following quotation from On the Basis of Morality (page 15-16) is quite famous:
- If I were to say that the so-called philosophy of this fellow Hegel is a colossal piece of mystification which will yet provide posterity with an inexhaustible theme for laughter at our times, that it is a pseudo-philosophy paralyzing all mental powers, stifling all real thinking, and, by the most outrageous misuse of language, putting in its place the hollowest, most senseless, thoughtless, and, as is confirmed by its success, most stupefying verbiage, I should be quite right.
- Further, if I were to say that this summus philosophus [...] scribbled nonsense quite unlike any mortal before him, so that whoever could read his most eulogized work, the so-called Phenomenology of the Mind, without feeling as if he were in a madhouse, would qualify as an inmate for Bedlam, I should be no less right.
Schopenhauer's critique of Hegel is directed at his perception that Hegel's works use deliberately impressive but ultimately vacuous jargon and neologisms, and that they contained castles of abstraction that sounded impressive but ultimately contained no verifiable content. He also thought that his glorification of church and state were designed for personal advantage and had little to do with search for philosophical truth. Although Schopenhauer may have appeared vain in his constant attacks on Hegel, they were not devoid of merit when targeted at someone who may have seen the Prussian state of his day as perfect and the goal of all history till then, depending on how you interpret him.
Many are put off Schopenhauer by descriptions of him as an obstinate and arrogant man, who did not lead the ascetic life that he glorified in his work. The idea that he made resignation into a command to virtue is inaccurate, as he was merely trying to explain asceticism in terms of metaphysics. He does refer to the asceticism as a state of "inner peace and cheerfulness", but he also clearly states that he was not trying to recommend the denial of the will above the affirmation of the will. Furthermore, the call to asceticism was supposed to come to select individuals as knowledge all of a sudden, rather than being a virtue that can be taught.
Nietzsche seems to have made this misinterpretation and many gain a distorted view of Schopenhauer from reading Nietzsche. The following sentence from Twilight of the Idols is often quoted:
- He has interpreted art, heroism, genius, beauty, great sympathy, knowledge, the will to truth, and tragedy, in turn, as consequences of "negation" or of the "will's" need to negate
Schopenhauer did see all these things as means to a more peaceful and enlightened way of life, but none of them were "denial of the will-to-live". Only asceticism is referred to in that way. Nietzsche also claimed that Schopenhauer did not recognise that suffering had a redemptive quality, yet his recognition of this seems blatantly clear in part 4 of The World as Will and Representation.
Also, his identification of the Will with the Kantian "thing-in-itself" has been misunderstood. Kant defined things-in-themselves as being beyond comprehension and that no-one could know the inner nature of a material thing. It is often thought that Schopenhauer denied this, but he did not. What he did assert was that one could know things about the thing-in-itself. For example, you can know that the will is a striving force, that it is endless, that it causes suffering, that it will produce boredom if unoccupied, etc. However, he did not say that you could directly know the will. In addition, it has sometimes been criticised that he never defined the will, but he explained that it could not be fully defined.
Bertrand Russell produced a very inaccurate article on Schopenhauer in his History of Western Philosophy. He alleged that Schopenhauer was hostile to Christianity and that he saw Christian asceticism as completely different from that of Buddhism and Hinduism. This view is completely incorrect, as a large part of both volumes of The World as Will and Representation deals with how Christianity has the same "inner-kernal" [as he puts it] as those two Eastern religions in teaching the impermanence of all world pleasures and the virtue of resignation. Schopenhauer did make criticisms of Christianity, but these were mainly of those things which he saw as having been inherited from Judaism, which he certainly did despise. Will Durant wrote a more accurate chapter on Schopenhauer in his The Story of Philosophy , largely allowing Schopenhauer to speak in his own words.
It has often been thought that Schopenhauer believed in solipsism. He actually said that solipsism could only be believed by those in a madhouse: "it would need not so much a refutation as a cure" [ The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1, Chapter 19]. Sartre took Schopenhauer to task on this point.
Train of influence
- Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde, 1813 (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason)
- Über das Sehn und die Farben, 1816 (On Vision and Colours)
- Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818/1819, vol 2 1844 (The World as Will and Representation)
- Über den Willen in der Natur, 1836 (On the Will in Nature)
- Über die Freiheit des menschlichen Willens, 1839 (On Freedom of the Will)
- Über die Grundlage der Moral, 1840 (On the Basis of Morality)
- Parerga und Paralipomena, 1851
- Albright, Daniel (2004). Modernism and Music: An Anthology of Sources, p.39n34. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226012670.
- http://www.blupete.com/Literature/Biographies/Philosophy/Schopenhauer.htm [this site contains the false view that Schopenhauer was a solipsist]
- http://www.carleton.ca/~abrook/SCHOPENY.htm On the philosopher's impact on Freud and psychology
Schopenhauer and aesthetic appreciation.
Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:38:55