The Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860)– who is the most widely read philosopher in Germany today – offered an incisive critique of the bourgeois world: its vision of the present as alone real, its exaltation of a rationality answering merely to pragmatic needs, and, underlying these, its self-abasement before the “crass materialism” of science.1 Schopenhauer was especially contemptuous of attempts to historicize and rationalize the evils of the bourgeois world as part of an ordered teleological plan; he dismissed Hegel’s “philosophy of absolute nonsense” as comprised of “three-quarters cash and one-quarter crazy notions” (PW, 79, 81). He himself utterly rejected the notion that history exhibited any unity beyond eternal recurrence of the same miserable patterns of events (PW, 108, 290). Schopenhauer argued that the intellect or reason so hypostatized by much Enlightenment thought was actually in bondage to the practical motives of the will to live, a will concentrated in the sexual act, in the unconscious and irrational desire to perpetuate life. Schopenhauer viewed will as the unique noumenal reality in a Kantian sense, a force which operated (1) largely unconsciously, (2) often repressively, and (3) in intimate conjunction with memory and sexuality.

Schopenhauer expressed an intense disillusionment with the concerns and methods of philosophy. He was impatient of what he saw as the intellectual and verbal games, the logical manipulations and groundless speculations of philosophers. He insisted, moreover, on speculation being confined to experience, observation, and testing. Above all, the human subject as described by Schopenhauer was a far cry from the ideal Hegelian subject whose intellectual and ethical behavior rationally complied with the requirements of a rational state. The Schopenhauerian subject was driven by motives scarcely accessible and harbored a perpetual tension and struggle between its constituting elements.

Anticipating Freud, Schopenhauer viewed consciousness as the mere surface of the mind. Human reason is but one faculty, and it is hardly dominant: its knowledge is restricted to the incomplete conscious mind and its operation occurs as a continuous struggle to mediate the claims of the social world and the deepest instinctive drives and desires. In fact, Schopenhauer’s concept of the will to live overlaps broadly with Freud’s notion of the unconscious as an arena which can harbor contradictions, where events are not temporally organized and where the claims of external reality are replaced by those of psychical reality. Schopenhauer had taken Kant’s distinction of phenomena and noumena as his starting point. On the basis of this distinction he regarded the world which appears to us as phenomenal, a representation whose form was governed by the subjective apparatus of time, space, and causality. In this scheme, the selfconscious human subject has a dual position. On the one hand, it takes its place within the scheme of objects in the world: as a subject I am conscious of myself as an object. On the other hand, I experience my self as a subject, as a willing, active, moving agent, whose body and actions objectify my will. This inner consciousness reveals itself to me immediately and irreducibly as my will, the “in-itself ” of my phenomenal being. Schopenhauer is at pains to point out repeatedly that the will is not an instrument of the intellect. Nor is the intellect some privileged faculty engaged in a disinterested manner in understanding the world. Rather, the intellect itself is a slave to the will; in its very basis, it is already infected by practical motives and interests. Schopenhauer characterizes the intellect as operating in a temporal medium, of past, present, and future; whereas the will moves in an endless present. The will, then, is our profoundest source of motivation and the primordial means of our engagement with the world. Schopenhauer sees this will to live as a blind, irrational, and purposeless force, which ceaselessly drives the subject like an internal clockwork. This model of the mind is deterministic and the determining factors lie well beneath the reach of reason.

Common to both Freud’s and Schopenhauer’s models of the mind are the phenomenon of repression and the location of motives in the unconscious. Schopenhauer asserts that we often impose illusory rationalizations on behavior which arises from hidden drives. The will itself prevents potentially embarrassing thoughts and desires rising to consciousness. The will can inspire failure of memory and a complete suppression of events and experiences, together with the replacement of these by delusions and fantasies. In Schopenhauer’s words, the will refuses to allow “what is contrary to it to come under the examination of the intellect.”2 The will, says Schopenhauer, periodically withdraws itself from the guidance of the intellect and of the motives. “In this way it then appears as a blind, impetuous, destructive force of nature, and accordingly manifests itself as the mania to annihilate everything that comes in its way” (WWII, 402).

Also anticipating Freud, Schopenhauer accords sexuality a central place in the economy of human motives. He described sexuality as the focus of the will. In his chapter on “The Metaphysics of Sexual Love” he described the sexual impulse as strongest and most active of all motives . . . It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort” (WWII, 533). He even goes so far as to define the sexual impulse as the will to live (WWII, 535). He looked askance at this state of affairs, affirming that sexuality “appears on the whole as a malevolent demon, striving to pervert, to confuse, and to overthrow everything” (WWII, 534). What explains the important role of sexuality is that, whatever its proximate aim might be, its ultimate aim is reproduction, to procure the only kind of immortality available, the immortality of the species. Schopenhauer states that the growing attachment of two lovers is in reality the will to live of the new, unborn individual (WWII, 536). The indestructibility of man’s true being in itself lies in the species rather than in the individual. Schopenhauer himself reflected sardonically on the fact that the entire maintenance of a species depends on an irrational, emotional, instinctual act.

Further anticipating Freud’s account of the life and death instincts, Schopenhauer held that death is the “true result and to that extent the purpose of life,” while the sexual instinct is the “embodiment of the will to live” (WWII, 618). Schopenhauer regards death as the return to a blissful state. In his essay “On Death and its Relation to the Indestructibility of our Inner Nature,” he states that “the entire cessation of the life-process must be a wonderful relief for its driving force.” Those who have engaged in the terrible struggles for existence, he says, have “the return into the womb of nature as the last resource . . . Like everything else, they emerged from this womb for a short time, enticed by the hope of more favourable conditions of existence than those which have fallen to their lot” (WWII, 469). Moreover, for Schopenhauer, the true being of anything survives its own individual death; employing Platonic ideas, he suggests that the eternity of the idea of a given species is distinctly marked in the finiteness of an individual (WWII, 482). In fact, “Death and birth are the constant renewal and revival of the will’s consciousness. In itself this will is endless and beginningless” (WWII, 500). At the end of this chapter, Schopenhauer presents us with the starkness of his pessimism:

Death is the great reprimand that the will-to-live, and more particularly the egoism essential thereto, receive through the course of nature . . . it is the violent destruction . . . of the fundamental error of our true nature, the great disillusionment. At bottom, we are something that ought not to be; therefore we cease to be. Egoism really consists in man’s restricting all reality to his own person, in that he imagines he lives in this alone, and not in others. Death teaches him something better, since it abolishes this person, so that man’s true nature, that is his will, will henceforth live only in other individuals. (WWII, 507)

Essentially, Schopenhauer’s is a pessimistic philosophy which turns away from the world. Before the French symbolists had articulated the need for poetry to aspire toward a Platonic ideal realm, Schopenhauer had affirmed that genuine knowledge, as given exclusively by poetry, the arts, and philosophy, must have as its object not the particulars of the material world but the underlying unity of the Platonic universal (PW, 21, 83). Schopenhauer urged that the only avenue of escape from bondage to the utilitarian and rational will lies in the shared endeavor of philosophy and poetry. The “high calling” of the poet and philosopher, claims Schopenhauer, has its root in their common ability to free the intellect from the utilitarian and rational constraints of the subjective will (PW, 90). These disciplines have as their object not the world of becoming but the world of being, the permanent unity underlying the ever changing flux of phenomena, the One behind the Many. Such freeing of the intellect was, for Schopenhauer, a stage on the Buddhistic and Hinduistic path to total renunciation of both world and will, a path summarized in his phrase the “turning of the Will” (PW, 106–109).

Following Plato, Schopenhauer sees reality or the true content of the phenomena in the world as embodied in ideas; these alone are timeless, existing “outside and independently of all relations.” And the kind of knowledge that apprehends ideas is “art, the work of genius,” whose perspective toward ideas is one of “pure contemplation” and detachment. Schopenhauer equates this “gift of genius” with the achievement of an impersonal and completely objective perspective: “Accordingly, genius is the capacity to remain in a state of pure perception, to remove from the service of the will the knowledge which originally existed only for this service.” Genius is an ability to look at the object independently of one’s own aims and interest, and one’s own will (WWI, 184–186). Schopenhauer subsequently elaborates that genius is the capacity to know not individual things but their ideas, the essential form of their entire species. In art, philosophy, and ascetic mysticism, the intellect’s bondage to the will is suspended, and the intellect is free to view the world more objectively, free of the practical subjective constraints of the will. Only these activities can perceive the Platonic universal underlying the multiplicity of appearances. Schopenhauer defines the aesthetic perspective, then, as comprising, firstly, knowledge of an object not as an individual thing but as an idea; and, secondly, a condition in which the self-consciousness of the knowing subject operates not as an individual “but as pure, will-less subject” (WWI, 194–195). A universal subject confronts the object in its universal aspect.

Aesthetic pleasure, then, results from a detached contemplation of beauty, which Schopenhauer defines as the propensity of nature to accommodate itself to such a disinterested perspective (WWI, 210). Like Aristotle and Sidney before him, Schopenhauer places poetry above history, since history renders individual and contingent truths, whereas the poet “apprehends the Idea, the inner being of mankind outside all relation and all time, the adequate objectivity of the thing-in-itself at its highest grade” (WWI, 244–245). Schopenhauer acknowledges, however, that though the poet conveys abstract and general concepts, he must use concrete terms that represent these, and he achieves this through imagination (WWI, 243). The other devices enlisted by poetry, such as rhythm and rhyme, give poetry “a certain emphatic power of conviction, independent of all reason or argument” (WWI, 243–244). The feeling of sublimity is excited in the observer when the objects of nature appear to have a hostile or threatening relation to the human will, as in spectacles of immeasurable greatness or might. The difference between beauty and sublimity is that in the former case, nature facilitates a detached contemplation of itself, free of all relation to the human will; in the latter case, this detachment is achieved through a process of struggle, a violent tearing away of the object from relations to the will, through overcoming and transcending feelings such as terror and danger. In sublimity we feel the twofold nature of our consciousness, both as individual, enslaved to the will and the mercy of the vast forces of nature, and as “the eternal, serene subject of knowing, who as the condition of every object is the supporter of this whole world . . . free from, and foreign to, all willing and all needs, in the quiet comprehension of the Ideas” (WWI, 200–205).

At the heart of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and aesthetics, then, is an attitude which continues through Nietzsche, Arnold, Bergson, and others: that rational knowledge can never be adequate to ideas of perception; and that poetry is the paradigm of disinterested and objective knowledge. As in so many nineteenth-century theories, epistemology – the science of knowing – here becomes aestheticized, and the aesthetic becomes a privileged category of human perception, elevated from being just one more discipline to a final resource for seeking harmony, unity, and order in the world. The harmony which was objectively fragmented in the late industrial world is now internalized as a subjective capacity: it is left to the aesthetic to attempt what religion, philosophy, and science can no longer accomplish. The aesthetic is defined as a form of perception of reality: poetry could no longer take for granted the reality it was to express. Schopenhauer’s insights were influential in the deployment of humor and irony by the French symbolists and Anglo-American modernists.


1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Philosophical Writings, ed. Wolfgang Schirmacher (New York: Continuum, 1994), pp. 20–22, 69, 86. Hereafter cited as PW.
2.  Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, 2 vols., trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover, 1958), Vol. II, p. 400. Hereafter cited as WWI and WWII.

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