Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Certainly one of the greatest philosophers of the 19th century, Schopenhauer seems to have had more impact on literature (e.g. Thomas Mann) and on people in general than on academic philosophy. Perhaps that is because, first, he wrote very well, simply and intelligibly (unusual, we might say, for a German philosopher, and unusual now for any philosopher), second, he was the first Western philosopher to have access to translations of philosophical material from India, both Vedic and Buddhist, by which he was profoundly affected, to the great interest of many (except most academic philosophers), and, third, his concerns were with the dilemmas and tragedies, in a religious or existential sense, of real life, not just with abstract philosophical problems. As Jung said:

He was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil -- all those things which the [other philosophers] hardly seemed to notice and always tried to resolve into all-embracing harmony and comprehensiblility. Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.
[Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, 1961, p. 69]

While we may have a chance to live happy and peaceful lives ourselves, this is not generally true for all; and at certain times and places, or in particular lives, horrors descend that sometimes defy credit or the imagination -- something of which we are again reminded in 2016 with the rampages, outrages, and abominations of terrorists and jihadists. Thus, those inclined to dismiss Schopenhauer as exaggerating or irrationally disillusioned with life, might take his "optimist's tour":

...und wenn man den verstocktesten Optimisten durch die Krankenhospitäler, Lazarethe und chirurgische Marterkammern, durch die Gefängnisse, Folterkammern und Sklavenställe, über Schlachtfelder und Gerichtsstätten führen, dann alle die finstern Behausungen des Elends, wo es sich vor den Blicken kalter Neugier verkriecht, ihm öffnen und zum Schluß ihn in den Hungerthurm des Ugolino blicken lassen wollte; so würde sicherlich auch er zuletzt einsehn, welcher Art dieser meilleur des mondes possibles ist.

If we were to conduct the most hardened and callous optimist through hospitals, infirmaries, operating theatres, through prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-hovels, over battlefields and to places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it shuns the gaze of cold curiosity, and finally were to allow him to glance into the dungeon of Ugolino where prisoners starved to death, he too would certainly see in the end what kind of a world is this meilleur des mondes possibles. [§58, The World as Will and Representation, Volume I, E.F.J. Payne translation, 1958, Dover, 1966, p.325; German text, Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Band 1, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1987, 1990, p.458]

"Ugolino and His Sons," 1865-67,
by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875),
the Metrpolitan Museum of Art
In the same section, Schopenhauer has previously discussed the Soliloquy in Hamlet, which I have examined elsewhere. The "dungeon of Ugolino" is where Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (d.1289), his sons Gaddo and Uguccione, and his grandsons Nino and Anselmuccio, having fallen to the politics of Pisa, were left to starve to death on the orders of Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, Archbishop of Pisa. The "dungeon" was actually in a tower, the Muda, that belonged to the the Ghibelline Gualandi family. Ugolino himself was Ghibelline in origin but, after the marriage of his sister to a Visconti, came to incline towards the Guelphs. The meilleur des mondes possibles, "the best of possible worlds," is, of course, a reference to Leibniz.

I couldn't say why Schopenhauer quoted that it in French, unless he was thinking of Voltaire, and his parody Candide (1759), more than Leibniz himself. However, a correspondent, Federico Oliva Meyer, has pointed out to me that Schopenhauer could well have read Leibniz's views in a treatise he published in French, the Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal. I otherwise was only aware that Leibniz had published in Latin and German. If Leibniz had followed George I to England, perhaps he could have published in English as well.

Schopenhauer's tour for the optimist could now be much extended. He knew of the slaughter at Waterloo, but not of Shiloh or Antietam, let alone the Somme or Verdun -- and we wonder if he ever saw anything of Goya's "Disasters of War" (Los Desastres de la Guerra), despite their being done in his time (1810-1820). The battlefields in World War I, where nothing green grew and human flesh and body parts were blended with the mud, was an experience and, doubtlessly, a smell that, surprisingly, drove no more than a few soldiers insane. In World War II, of course, what the Germans did in their concentration and extermination camps set a standard for cruelty, inhumanity, horror, and evil that has actually been matched with some regularity in subsequent history, for instance in Cambodia or Rwanda. In our own day, Islamic terrorists are advancing the nightmare in their own unique ways, proudly selling kidnapped girls and women into sex slavery and beheading or immolating hostages on videos subsequently distributed for the edification of the faithful. Their shamelessness defeats even the Nazis, who concealed and attempted to erase evidence of the worst of their crimes. Adolf Hitler never boasted of Auschwitz.

It is rare for philosophers to notice these events, unless their religious or Existential significance is of concern, or the writers have some particular political axe to grind. Even philosophers upon whom Schopenhauer did have a strong effect, like Nietzsche and even Wittgenstein, nevertheless could not put him to good use since they did not accept his moral, aesthetic, and religious realism -- and either didn't notice or didn't care about the horrors emphasized by Schopenhauer (which is curious with Wittgenstein, since he was actually a soldier in World War I -- we never hear any reflections on this experience -- and who lived to learn, safe in England, of what the Germans had been doing during World War II). Schopenhauer is all but unique in intellectual history for being both an atheist and sympathetic to Christianity.

Schopenhauer's system will not make any sense except in the context of Kant's metaphysics. For the purposes of the Proceedings of the Friesian School, Schopenhauer may be said to have made three great contributions to the Kantian tradition, which supplement the contemporary contributions of Fries:

  1. He retained Kant's notion of the thing-in-itself but recognized that it could not exist as a separate order of "real" objects over and above the phenomenal objects of experience. Hence Schopenhauer's careful use of the singular rather than the plural when referring to the "thing-in-itself." Kant left his "Copernican Revolution" incomplete by describing the ordinary objects of experience as phenomena while leaving the impression that in an absolute sense they were only subjective, with things-in-themselves as the "real" objects. This may be a mistaken interpretation of Kant, but it is not uncommon. On the other hand, even Schopenhauer favorably compares Kant to Berkeley, even though both Kant and Schopenhauer reject a true "subjective idealism" in which objects exist in no way apart from consciousness. Schopenhauer's point was that, like Berkeley, phenomena are all there are when it comes to objects as objects. What stands over and above objects is something else. For Berkeley that was only God. For Schopenhauer it was the Will as thing-in-itself. Kant, however, properly held that there are things about objects, like free will (which Schopenhauer rejects), unconditioned realities, that cannot be captured in phenomena.

  2. Schopenhauer abolished Kant's machinery of synthesis through the pure concepts of the understanding, substituting his fourfold "Principle of Sufficient Reason." This misses much of the point of Kant's argument in the First Edition Transcendental Deduction and would not count as an advance on Kant if it did not also abolish the mistaken idea in Kant that Reason, as he conceived it, could produce out of the mere formalism of logic a substantive content to morality, aesthetics, etc. Schopenhauer does not have a very good substitute when it comes to morality (as do Fries and Nelson), but he does in aesthetics, which leads to,

  3. Schopenhauer's strong sense of aesthetic value, to which he gives an intuitive, perceptual, and Platonic cast in his theory of Ideas. Schopenhauer gave aesthetics and beauty a central place in his thought such as few other philosophers have done. His aesthetic realism is a great advance over Kant's moralistic denial of an objective foundation for aesthetic reality. Beyond that lies a realistic appreciation of many religious phenomena that is superior to Kant and conformable to insights that will later be found in Otto and Jung. Schopenhauer could take religion seriously in ways that others could not because of his pessimistic rejection of the value of life. This, indeed, embodies its own distortions, but it is a welcome corrective, as Jung noted, to the shallow optimism of most other philosophers. And it does faithfully highlight the world-denying trend of important religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, which must be addressed by any responsible philosophy of religion.

Schopenhauer's metaphysics, as stated in his classic The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, 1818, 1844, 1859 -- E.F.J. Payne's English translation, Dover Publications, 1966), is structured through a small set of dichotomous divisions, displayed and color coded in the following table. Schopenhauer prided himself on the simplicity of this in comparison to Kant, whose system he compared to a Gothic cathedral. Hegel's metaphysics, which produced a potentially infinite elaboration of Kant's threefold structures, Schopenhauer regarded as, of course, nonsense.

THE WILL, transcendent Thing-in-Itself, Books II & IVREPRESENTATION
THE SUBJECT, Upanishadic Unknown Knower, Book ITHE OBJECT
Plato's IDEAS, objectivity free of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Book IIISPACE & TIME, governed by the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Book I
BODY, Immediate Object of the WillEXTERNAL OBJECTS

The basic distinction in Schopenhauer's metaphysics is between representation and the thing-in-itself. The thing-in-itself turns out to be will. The will is introduced in Book II of The World as Will and Representation, where its manifestations in nature are also examined. That supplies, in effect, Schopenhauer's philosophy of science, which has its embarrassing aspects: Schopenhauer did not understand the new physics of light and electricity that had been developed by Thomas Young (1773-1829) and Michael Faraday (1791-1867). He disparaged the wave theory of light, which Young had definitively established, as a "crude materialism," and "mechanical, Democritean, ponderous, and truly clumsy" [Dover, p. 123]. Unfortunately, Schopenhauer does not seem to have understood the evidence for Young's discoveries about light, or even for Newton's -- he still clung to Goethe's clever but clueless theory of colors. Schopenhauer also required that there be a "vital force," though that would still be part of respectable science for a while to come yet. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer would have been happy to learn how his beloved qualitates occultae would return in force with quantum mechanics: Things like strangeness, charm, baryon number, lepton number, etc., are exactly the kinds of irreducible types he demanded.

Book IV of The World as Will and Representation is also about the will, but now in terms of the denial of the will. The denial of will, self, and self-interest produce for Schopenhauer a theory both of morality and of holiness, the former by which self-interest is curtailed for the sake of others, the latter by which all will-to-live ceases. Schopenhauer's greatest eloquence about the evils, sufferings, and futility of life, and its redemption through self-denial, occur there.

On the representation side of his metaphysics, which occupies Books I and III of The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer must deal with two areas that exercise their own claims to be considered things-in-themselves. First, at the beginning of Book I, comes the Subject of Knowledge. Schopenhauer's thought there is refined by his reading of the Upanishads, where the Br.hadâran.yaka distinguishes the Subject of Knowledge, the Unknown Knower, from all Objects of Knowledge, from everything Known. Schopenhauer accepts that distinction, and also that the Subject is free of the forms of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (space, time, causality, etc.).

But the subject, the knower never the known, does not lie within these forms [i.e. space, time, plurality]; on the contrary, it is always presupposed by those forms themselves, and hence neither plurality nor its opposite, namely unity, belongs to it. We never know it, but it is precisely that which knows wherever there is knowledge. [Dover, p. 5]

Since the Upanishads themselves posit an identity of the Subject, the Âtman or Self, with Brahman, the transcendent Supreme Reality, Being itself, one could not confess surprise if Schopenhauer were to identify the Subject with Kant's transcendent thing-in-itself. He does not, however -- deciding, rather arbitrarily it must seem, to retain the Subject as an Unknowable side of representation, distinct from all Objects.

In Book III of The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer turns to his theory of Ideas, which he says are the same as Plato's Ideas, and which are also free of the forms of space, time, and causality. For Schopenhauer, it is through the Ideas that all beauty is manifest in art and nature. Again, it would not be surprising if Schopenhauer took the Ideas to be transcendent realities, especially when that is precisely what Plato thought about his own Ideas; but, as with the Subject, Schopenhauer keeps them in representation, as the nature of Objects in so far as they are free of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The bulk of Book III is then occupied with the examination of individual forms of art, culminating in music.

The final distinction, although it is one of the earliest made, in Book I, is that between the body and the other objects of representation in space and time. For Schopenhauer, the body is known immediately and the perception of other objects is spontaneously projected, in a remaining fragment of Kant's theory of synthesis and perception, from the sensations present in the sense organs of the body onto the external objects understood as the causes of those sensations. The body itself, in Book II, becomes the most immediate manifestation of the will, a direct embodiment of the will-to-live.

One might say that the most interesting aspect of Schopenhauer's metaphysics consists of the turns not taken. The reason why the Subject and the Ideas should be held separate from the Will sometimes seems only to be that this is necessary to produce the degree of pessimism that Schopenhauer requires: The will must be blind and purposeless; but as the Subject it would not be blind, and as the Ideas it would consist of all the meaning and beauty of the Platonic World of Ideas. Indeed, Jung would later see the process by which his Archetypes are instantiated, in the "individuation" of the Self through the "transcendent function," as the means by which consciousness is expanded and life made meaningful:

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. [Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 326]

Although the theory of art Schopenhauer presents in Book III, by which the Ideas are instantiated much like Jung's Archetypes, might seem to describe meaning enough for anyone's life, Schopenhauer just cannot imagine that it is good enough. Probably it is not, since few enough people find meaning in life through art. Where they have always found it is in religion, and Schopenhauer passes on to that ground with his theory of holy self-denial. But not all religion is the denial of self or of life; and Schopenhauer is conspicuously unsympathetic with religions, like Judaism and Islâm (or, for that matter, Confucianism and Taoism), that do not maintain the level of world-denial that he thinks necessary for "true" holiness. Thus his theory fails as phenomenology of religion. Only Otto can explain holiness in both world-affirmation and world-denial. But no one would ever accuse Schopenhauer of overlooking the evils of life or misunderstanding, as is all too common among Western intellectuals today, the motivation of world-denying religions.

In an intriguing article, "Windows on the Will," in The New York Review of Books of March 10, 2016, author Zadie Smith considers the movies The Polar Express [2004] and especially, in detail, Anomalisa [2015], with the help of Schopenhauer's On the Suffering of the World in hand. She watched Anomalisa "with my friend Tamsin, a professional philosopher, a Nietzsche scholar by trade, but not averse to the odd Schopenhauer reference, should a layman -- or woman -- try to force one upon her" [p.45].

This review is the most extensive use of Schopenhauer in recent popular culture that I have encountered, and Anomalisa seems to be a suitable target for such an interpretation, with the possibility that the director, Charlie Kaufman, actually had Schopenhauer in mind (with a clue from his mention in Kaufman's earlier strange movie, Being John Malkovich). One remark, however, is of particular note:

The will lies behind all, contains all, is the "thing-in-itself... the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and so of the whole," a somewhat loopy metaphysics that real academic philosophers, like Tamsin, must take with a large pinch of salt, though it has captivated artists for generations. [p.48]

This begins with an accurate presentation of Schopenhauer; however, Tamsin, as a Nietzsche scholar, certainly should realize that the "loopy metaphyisics" is still accepted by Nietzsche himself. We are left wondering how much of Schopenhauer she thinks Nietzsche has actually retained, or how well she understands the relationship between the two. Nietzsche certainly never offered his own metaphysics; and his use of the "Will," as I examine elsewhere, turns on a small but critical alteration in Schopenhauer's system. Suffering goes with power; and it is only to be avoided in the sense that power enables us to direct some of it away from ourselves and onto others. The Nietzschean enjoys this, as the Iroquois would enjoy torturing prisoners to death. One might hope, then, that the "pinch of salt" is for Nietzsche's whole philosophy rather than specifically for Schopenhauer's metaphysics, although that does not seem to be the drift of Zadie Smith's remark, leaving a question about the judgment or understanding of Tamsin.

An excellent bust of Schopenhauer, at left, by the great German sculptress, Elisabet Ney, can still be seen in her studio in Austin, Texas, where she and her husband had immigrated from Germany. After his experience sitting for the bust, Schopenhauer is said to have wondered if, despite all his misogyny, women could after all be great artists. The expression on the bust is curious, and we might wonder whether it is misogynistic, misanthropic, or just a shopkeeper who has found children stealing candy.

The Soliloquy in Hamlet

Schopenhauer quote on History

Schopenhauer quote on Religion

Schopenhauer quote on Music

Schopenhauer quote on Mathematics

Schopenhauer quote on Tears

Kant and Schopenhauer on Music

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Arthur Schopenhauer,
On "the Professors of Philosophy"

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by Christopher Young & Andrew Brook

Schopenhauer on Home Page

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Arthur Schopenhauer, On "the Professors of Philosophy"

The three Prefaces of The World as Will and Representation present remarkable changes in Schopenhauer's tone. The first, from 1818, is, as Schopenhauer says, advice on how the book is to be read, including the instruction that readers go to his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, first. They better have read Kant, also. It is clear that Schopenhauer expects a lot from his readers. It later becomes clear that he doesn't get it.

A second edition of the book was not published until 1844 -- 26 years later. Even then there was no great demand for it, the publisher was unenthusiastic, and, evidently, Schopenhauer had to defray some of the costs of publication himself. The Preface to the second edition reflects the disappointment that Schopenhauer had experienced during this period. He had given up teaching after making no headway whatsoever against Hegel's popularity.

I constantly saw the false and the bad, and finally the absurd and the senseless, standing in universal admiration and honour....[Dover edition, p. xviii]

During his last years in Berlin, his scheduled lectures were apparently not even given, since there were no students (he was only paid by the student, which is why the lectures were scheduled at all). Even after Hegel died in 1831, the tide of Hegelianism was still ascendant. Schopenhauer retired to a largely uneventful, private, and solitary life, living off his prudently maintained inheritance.

The tone of the second preface is thus bitter and scornful. The "professors of philosophy" who ignored him and adored Hegel were little better than fools to Schopenhauer -- dishonest, self-serving, and sophistical fools at that. But it is there that Schopenhauer's analysis, however embittered over his own disappointments, is something more than just sour grapes:  He anticipates the corrupt rent-seeking that can result when learning is wedded to bureaucratic authority and income:

Now what in the world has such a philosophy [i.e. Schopenhauer's] to do with that alma mater, the good, substantial university philosophy, which, burdened with a hundred intentions and a thousand considerations, proceeds on its course cautiously tacking, since at all times it has before its eyes the fear of the Lord, the will of the publisher, the encouragement of students, the goodwill of colleagues, the course of current politics, the momentary tendency of the public, and Heaven knows what else? Or what has my silent and serious search for truth in common with the yelling school disputations of the chairs and benches, whose most secret motives are always personal aims? [ibid. p. xxvi]

Of course, the precise tack of current "substantial university philosophy" has changed a bit. Fear of the Lord, or even the tendency of the public, can now be safely ignored, since modern fashionable thought is irreligious far beyond anything anticipated or desired by Schopenhauer, while the whole academic community has so esotercized and insulated itself that the general public hasn't got a clue what it does or even says. Safe in their own taxpayer subsidized enclaves, "the professors of philosophy" find that the "goodwill of colleagues" is supreme, with its own special, distilled version of the "course of current politics," since ideological conformity has become so important that it now even has its own name:  "Political Correctness."

It is not privileged information that at present it is easier to advance in the profession by hanging around well-known colleagues and massaging their egos than by an effort at articulating a fundamental disagreement. [Tom Rockmore, On Heidegger's Nazism and Philosophy, U. of California Press, 1997, p. 23]

The United States Constitution prohibits the granting of any "Title of Nobility," but tenured academia has achieved an unaccountable status, with a secure, indeed sinecure, living at the public purse, that would be the envy of any nobility that might have to ride out and gather rents directly from the peasants. The modern IRS takes care of that. Teaching, the ostensive purpose of academic employment, becomes less and less onerous, while a vast output of esoteric research, intelligible only to the cognoscenti, is the key to further status and privilege. Academic conferences are now the subsidized and tax-deductible festivals of "the corybantic shouting with which the birth of the spiritual children of those of the same mind is reciprocally celebrated..." [p. xxv], usually at the most pleasing venues available, from Hawaii to Manhattan to Paris.

Nothing about this, therefore, would surprise Schopenhauer in the least -- let alone that Hegel is still held in high regard, while many of his spiritual descendants explicitly advocate the irrationalism and incoherence that is merely evident in Hegel's practice, not in his own claims to rationality.

Schopenhauer's brief third Preface, from 1859, after the influence of Hegel had finally faded and Schopenhauer had become somewhat recognized and influencial, reflects some vindication:

If I also have at last arrived, and have the satisfaction at the end of my life of seeing the beginning of my influence, it is with the hope that, according to an old rule, it will last the longer in proportion to the lateness of its beginning. [p. xxviii]

Indeed, Schopenhauer's influence, although persistent, is still limited, ironically for many of the same reasons that it was in his own day. The greatest value of Hegel's method was always that it could generate almost limitless verbiage without really saying anything. This is invaluable for an academic career today, where journals and books can be filled many times over with tireless, but stupefying, rehearsals of the same popular shibboleths. That these will never really mean anything to anybody -- indeed, they are usually of the form that nothing means anything, or that only power matters -- is far less important than the status, income, and, indeed, power that they foster.

What is most distressing, however, is that the moral, practical, and intellectual equivalent of Hegelian philosophy should have come to flourish in great measure because of the ascendancy of Hegel's own patron, the Prussian State -- by which Prussia itself, long gone, continues to live in the institutions of welfare and police power that all modern states have adopted from it. Thus, compulsory public education for the purpose for state propaganda, the disarmament of citizens to prevent resistance to authority, public pensions to make everyone dependent on government ("social security"), peacetime military conscription, and universal state identification papers -- all originated by Prussia -- are now supposedly enlightened features of the so-called democracies. Indeed, Hegel himself may have coined the word "police" (Polizei), from the Greek word for "state," polis. This may be the most suitable monument of all to Hegelianism.

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