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Introduction to Schopenhauer – The World as Will

The following is a transcript of this video.

In his masterpiece, The World as Will and Representation, the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote:

“For if anything in the world is desirable, so desirable that even the dull and uneducated herd in its more reflective moments would value it more than silver and gold, it is that a ray of light should fall on the obscurity of our existence, and that we should obtain some information about this enigmatical life of ours, in which nothing is clear except its misery and vanity.”

In this two part series we will examine the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. In this lecture we will look at his metaphysics, or his claim that the ‘world is will’, while in the second lecture we will investigate Schopenhauer’s ethics.

Like many philosophers before him, Schopenhauer proclaimed wonder to be the impetus which impels individuals to philosophize. Yet unlike other philosophers, he maintained that this wonder arises because, simply put, the world is such a wretched place: 

“Not merely that the world exists, but still more that it is such a miserable and melancholy world, is the tormenting problem of metaphysics.” (The World as Will and Representation)

Schopenhauer believed the role of philosophy to be to “lay bare the true nature of the world” (The World as Will and Representation), so as to  shed a ray of light on the darkness of this miserable existence, and in doing so provide consolation for the fragile and finite human animal.

All those who preceded him had failed at this project, according to Schopenhauer, and he believed that he alone had uncovered the true nature of the world.

In doing so, he saw his philosophy as a great gift to mankind, an oasis of peace in the tragic and wretched  desert of life:

“Subject to the limitation of human knowledge, my philosophy is the real solution of the enigma of the world.” (The World as Will and Representation

Schopenhauer did not envision that his philosophy would attract and be exalted by the masses, instead, he realized that for most individuals the world’s existence is not  a mystery at all:

“The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence is to him; on the contrary, everything, how it is and that it is, seems to him a matter of course.” (The World as Will and Representation)

A common philosophical position many of these so-called ‘lower men’ often adhere to, is the belief that the physical world, in the  manner they perceive and experience it,  has an independent existence. This view, as Roger Scruton nicely explains,  is problematic:

“…how can I know the world as it is? I can have knowledge of the world as it seems, since that is merely knowledge of my present perceptions, memories, thoughts, and feelings. But can I have knowledge of the world that is not just knowledge of how it seems? To put the question in slightly more general form: can I have knowledge of the world that is not just knowledge of my own point of view?” (Roger Scruton, Kant: A Brief Insight)

The possibility of objective knowledge, or knowledge “that is not merely my own view point of view” has been hotly disputed by philosophers throughout history and this dispute influenced Schopenhauer, so we will briefly outline some of the important viewpoints.

The  German philosopher G.W. Leibniz, a member of the philosophical school known as  rationalism, believed that through the use of one’s reason it was possible to obtain objective knowledge of the world.  David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher and member of the philosophical school known as empiricism, disagreed with Leibniz. Rather he proposed that all knowledge of the world was obtained through experience and therefore, is always subjective and contaminated, so to speak, by the perspective or point of view of the knower. Objective knowledge, according to Hume, is not possible for human beings.

Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German philosopher who was given the nickname the “all-pulveriser” for supposedly destroying the foundations upon which all philosophies before him had been built, was greatly influenced by the ideas of both Leibniz and Hume. In fact, he claimed that he was aroused from his “dogmatic slumbers” by the ideas of Hume. Kant was very concerned with whether or not it was possible to obtain objective knowledge of the world, and was not satisfied with either the rationalism of Leibniz or the empiricism of Hume. This led Kant to formulate his own position known as “transcendental idealism” which was extremely influential in the development of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Because of the impact Kant had on Schopenhauer we will need to briefly discuss Kant’s ideas before proceeding to Schopenhauer; but as a warning Kant is notoriously difficult to understand and there is still no general consensus as to the meaning of many important aspects of his philosophy.

An integral distinction Kant made which is essential to understanding transcendental idealism, is between the world as we experience it, which is called the world of appearances or phenomenal world, and the world as it exists independent of our experience, which is  composed of by what Kant called ‘things-in-themselves’. According to Kant we cannot obtain any knowledge of “things-in-themselves”:

“…what things may be in themselves, I know not, and need not know because a thing is never presented to me otherwise than as a phenomena.” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason)

It is only the world of appearances which we can know and according to Kant this world is organized or structured by fundamental principles; most notably space and time, which Kant described as  forms of intuition, and causality which Kant called a category of the understanding. Space and time, along with the 12 categories Kant identified, of which causality is but one, structure or make possible our experience of the world. Furthermore, according to Kant space, time and causality are not features of things-in-themselves, or as Christopher Janaway explains it:

“Kant thought that the world of appearance must occupy space and time. It is obviously hard to imagine there not being space or time, but Kant went further and argued that without them there could not be a knowable world at all. A similar point applies to cause and effect, and to the principle that things can endure unchanged through time. The rules of the empirical world are that it must contain enduring things, arranged in space and time, and having systematic effects upon one another. Nothing else, Kant argued, could ever count as an empirical world that we could know. However, his most startling claim is that all these rules are not present in the world as it is in itself. They are all rules simply about how the world must be if we are to be able to experience it.” (Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, Christopher Janaway).

Upon reading Kant, Schopenhauer underwent what he called an “intellectual rebirth”, and proceeded to use Kant’s core ideas as the foundation upon which he built his own philosophical edifice. Schopenhauer’s interpretation of Kant was that space, time, and causality do not exist in the world but are instead features of our mind which it uses to construct our experience. It should be noted that there is still disagreement as to whether Kant actually meant that these principles were features of the mind, however that is how Schopenhauer interpreted him.

The world as we experience it is structured by objects arranged in space and time which have causal relationships with other things. Now if space, time, and causality are features of the mind, then it follows, according to Schopenhauer, that  the objects of the world depend on the mind for their existence and that world as we know it is a representation created by our mind. Schopenhauer famously expressed this idealist position by proclaiming: “The world is my representation”.

Schopenhauer’s idealism, or his belief that all objects of experience are dependent for their existence on the brain, or a knowing subject, was influenced by Kant as well as the famous Irish philosopher George Berkeley. He expressed his idealist position in the following quote:

“…if accordingly we attempt to imagine an objective world without a knowing subject, then we become aware that what we are imagining at that moment is in truth the opposite of what we intended, namely nothing but just the process in the intellect of a knowing being who perceives an objective world, that is to say, precisely that which we had sought to exclude. For this perceptible and real world is obviously a phenomenon of the brain; and so in the assumption that the world as such might exist independently of all brains there lies a contradiction.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

While Schopenhauer agreed with the fundamental tenets of Kant’s ideas, he also believed that there was a major inconsistency which lay at the heart of his philosophy. Although Kant claimed we can never come to know the nature of reality ‘in-itself’, he thought there must be something which exists independently of us that is the cause of our representations, or the world that appears to us.  If such a postulation is not made, Kant reasoned, then one would have to arrive at the absurd conclusion that our representations of the world arise out of nothing.

Kant proposed the existence of mind-independent, or what he called ‘transcendental’ objects which are the cause of our representations, but which we can never ascertain the nature of. Yet this made no sense to Schopenhauer as according to his interpretation of Kant’s transcendental idealism space, time, and causality are features of the mind. This means it makes no sense to speak of ‘things-in-themselves’ causing our experience, as causation requires a knowing subject. In a similar manner, since objects can only exist within space and time, and because space and time also require a knowing subject, it also makes no sense to speak of objects which exist in an independent manner.

“…the being of an object in general belongs to the form of appearances, and is conditioned by the being of the subject in general, just as the object’s manner of appearance is conditioned by the subject’s forms of knowledge. Hence, if the thing in itself is to be assumed, it cannot be an object at all.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

Schopenhauer, however, did not disagree with Kant that there must be some substratum underlying our experience of the phenomenal world. Yet he did not think that we could arrive at knowledge of such a substratum by gazing outward at the objects of our experience:

“…on the path of objective knowledge, thus starting from the representation, we shall never get beyond the representation, i.e. the phenomenon. We shall therefore remain at the outside of things: we shall never be able to penetrate into their inner nature, and investigate what they are in themselves, in other words, what they may be by themselves.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

Schopenhauer thought that the philosophical task of laying bare the true inner nature of the world would be impossible were in not for the fact that there is one object in the world which we experience from within – that being,  our own body:

“Consequently, a way from within stands open to us to that real inner nature of things to which we cannot penetrate from without. It is, so to speak, a subterranean passage, a secret alliance, which, as if by treachery, places us all at once in the fortress that cannot be taken by attack from without.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

When we direct our awareness inward, Schopenhauer claimed we would discover at the core of our being an unconscious instinct or force characterized by a restless striving. This force at the core of our being Schopenhauer called ‘will’. In fact, Schopenhauer thought that our body was a manifestation of will, so that our body and will are really one and the same thing presented to us in two different way: our body is presented to us in the form of representations, and our will is presented via direct inner experience. Since he proposed that we can most clearly intuit the raw desire that is the will within us during the sexual act and when our survival instincts are activated,  he also called it the ‘will-to-live’.

Although our body is the only object in the world which we have inner access to, Schopenhauer thought that because it is apparent that all life strives fundamentally towards survival,  nourishment, and propagation, it was justified to assert that all life forms are similar to us in that they are also manifestations of the will-to-live, or will:

“Everything presses and strives towards existence…Let any one consider this universal desire for life, let him see the infinite willingness, facility, and exuberance with which the will to live presses impetuously into existence under a million forms everywhere and at every moment…In such phenomena, then, it becomes visible that I am right in declaring that the will to live is that which cannot be further explained, but lies at the foundation of all explanation…” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

Schopenhauer didn’t think it was appropriate to claim that only organic life was the manifestation of will but not inorganic nature. Doing so would introduce into the world an unnecessary divide between the organic and inorganic. Instead, Schopenhauer claimed that not only is will the true inner nature of all life forms, but of everything that exists.  It is, as he wrote, “the kernel of reality itself”.

“We must therefore also apply the key for an understanding of the inner nature of things, a key that only the immediate knowledge of our own inner nature could give us, to these phenomena of the inorganic world, which are the most remote of all from us…For this word indicates that which is the being-in-itself of everything in the world, and is the sole kernel of every phenomenon.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

Since everything in this world, organic and inorganic alike, is a manifestation of will, at its core everything is one with everything else; the separateness of all things is nothing but an illusion. This conclusion of Schopenhauer’s in many ways parallels that found in the Upanishads, the text which founds the basis of Hinduism: “This thou art”. The perceiver and the perceived are one. While Schopenhauer is known to have studied Eastern philosophy, he arrived at this position independently prior to being acquainted with the Upanishads.

Certain philosophers throughout history, perhaps most notably Spinoza, have ascribed to pantheism and claimed that this world is the manifestation of a divine and benevolent God. As an atheist, Schopenhauer thought the pantheist position to be ludicrous, for he proclaimed that if the pantheist opened his eyes to the misery of the world he would “have to admit that a God who should presume to transform himself into such a world would certainly have been inevitably troubled and tormented by the devil.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

Instead of being a manifestation of God, Schopenhauer thought the world is a manifestation of will, which is a blind impulse or force which is not divine or benevolent,  but ‘demonic’. As manifestations of will, all life blindly strives towards nourishment and propagation. However,  since organisms must feed on other organisms to nourish themselves, and all organisms are manifestations of will, Schopenhauer concluded that “the will must live on itself, for there exists nothing beside it, and it is a hungry will.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

In order to convey the pain and horror which arises when the manifestations of will feed on each other, Schopenhauer conveys a striking image by rendering in his own words an account given by a European explorer.

Schopenhauer describes how the explorer saw “an immense field entirely covered with skeletons, and took it to be a battlefield. However they were nothing but skeletons of large turtles, five feet long, three feet broad, and of equal height. These turtles come this way from the sea, in order to lay their eggs, and are then seized by wild dogs; with their united strength, these dogs lay them on their backs, tear open their lower armor, the small scales of the belly, and devour them alive. But then a tiger often pounces on the dogs. Now all this misery is repeated thousands and thousands of times, year in, year out. For this then, are these turtles born. For what offence must they suffer this agony? What is the point of the whole scene of horror? The only answer is that the will to live thus objectifies itself.” (Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation)

In the next lecture we will investigate the ethical side of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. That is, we will look at what it means for us human beings to be manifestations of will, and how this knowledge should guide our action. As we will see, as manifestations of will we are condemned to a life of misery, pain, and suffering, and according to Schopenhauer, there remains only one thing we can do if we are to find any semblance of peace on this miserable earth – we must escape from the will.

Further Readings