Schopenhauer is worth reading for many reasons. Not only does his philosophy contain a number of important ideas, but his writing is remarkably clear and his scope extremely wide-reaching.
Among writers in general, but especially among philosophers, it is difficult to find prose as eloquent and enjoyable to read (albeit with fairly liberal doses of both insults (directed most vociferously at Hegel) and self-praise) as that of Schopenhauer’s. Even if one disagrees completely with everything Schopenhauer says, as an example of how one should write, he stands apart from the crowd.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy also touches on a surprisingly wide range of elements of human life, from the most universal and abstract, such as our underlying metaphysical condition, its transcendence through art, and morality, to the more mundane, such as weeping and regret. It is all the more remarkable that such an ambitious project was completed in its entirety by the time Schopenhauer was only 30 years old. With that said, let us now turn to that philosophy itself…
A key feature of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is also one of the areas in which he is most original, that is, that the world is not merely represented in the understanding of the perceiving individual subject, rather it is the representation. The world and our representation of it are one and the same thing. Without a subject, it is meaningless to posit or look for an external object.
He reasons to this conclusion by extrapolating on from Kant. Kant’s fundamental insight was that the ‘categories’ human perception is always framed in (he named twelve but Schopenhauer focuses on three; space, time, and causality) are not a part of the external world itself (the ‘thing-in-itself’) but are instead applied to it by human consciousness.
Schopenhauer follows Kant in asserting that the world is fundamentally divided into subject and object and above this basic division, events are determined by causality in space and time (this is the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) which Schopenhauer outlined in his doctoral thesis and Kant realised are brought to bear on the world through human consciousness as a kind of structuring framework). What this means is that causality doesn’t operate at the more ‘fundamental’ level of subject and object; the object therefore cannot be cause to the effect of a representation in the human understanding. The way Schopenhauer reconciles this is to postulate that they are in fact the same, i.e. the world is entirely and completely representation. (This is an idea that would find more solid footing in later phenomenological and existentialist thought, particularly Heidegger’s being-in-the-world)
Now, humans have epistemological access to their bodies through the mode of representation as discussed above, but if that was the only way they knew their bodies, the movements of that body would be as mysterious as the movements of other objects in the surrounding world and we would be forced to invent ‘forces’ to explain why my arm rises or my head turns. This isn’t the case though. We also know our bodies through another, ‘internal’ perspective, the will.
This is a second place in which Schopenhauer is truly original; will is not just an individual’s psychological ‘desire,’ but is a primordial, metaphysically real entity. Schopenhauer calls it ‘groundless’. This ‘will’ can be thought of as ultimate metaphysical bedrock. It is the primordial ‘stuff’ of the universe and everything else is piled on top.
This has some interesting consequences. Being prior to the subject/object division, will is therefore one, a unified whole. It is also beyond causality, time, and space (none of which operate ‘below’ the level of the PSR, but which are active in and apply to the representation).
Given all this, ‘will’ must be ‘in’ everyone and everything else. Everything, or what Schopenhauer calls phenomenon, is fundamentally ‘will.’ Another way to say this is that although ‘will’ is single and undifferentiated, it expresses itself in a multitude of different phenomena. At bottom, everything is the same, i.e. ‘will.’
Schopenhauer goes even further than this to say that phenomena are nothing more than will ‘objectified.’ Since the will is not subject to causality, the movements of its phenomena cannot be attributed to a prior cause (i.e. the will ‘willing’), rather the two (will and the movements of phenomena) occur simultaneously and are in fact one and the same. Of course, not all phenomena manifest ‘will’ to the same degree. Stones, for example, are what Schopenhauer calls a ‘lower degree of objectification of the will than animals, which are in turn, ‘lower’ than humans.
Schopenhauer points out that one (uncomfortable to modern ears) consequence of all this (and something that would be echoed in later existentialist thought) is that science can never reach ‘ultimate truth’ because it starts from representation (i.e. physical matter and physical forces) which is necessarily conditioned by and subject to the PSR (i.e. human understanding). Schopenhauer’s philosophy, on the other hand, starts from the other ‘internal’ mode of access we have to the world, namely, will, and therefore gets directly at the heart of the matter.
Here Schopenhauer demonstrates his prowess for synthesis by collecting the threads from the previous ‘incomplete’ thoughts of his predecessors and tying them up in a remarkably satisfying way. First, with reference to Kant, we can now see that Schopenhauer’s will is nothing other than Kant’s purportedly ‘unknowable’ thing-in-itself and second, going back to Plato, he identifies the different grades of objectification of the will as Plato’s Ideas.
So what exactly is ‘will’? Schopenhauer identifies it as a goal-less urge; a pure, unadulterated willing. It is an insatiable and constant striving, always desiring but incapable of satisfaction. What does it desire? Nothing. It does not will for something, it wills because that is its nature.
This brings us to another key feature of Schopenhauer’s philosophy; suffering. Since ‘will’ is a striving that is fundamentally insatiable and all humans are, in essence, ‘will’, humans ought to be similarly characterised by an insatiable desire. And indeed, Schopenhauer claims we are. Not only are we in a constant state of desire for something, no sooner have we obtained the object of our desire (money, power, the girl or guy, an X, a Y, whatever), we immediately desire something else (more money, a newer X, a better Y, etc.). Since we can only desire something that we lack, Schopenhauer points out that we must be in a constant state of want or deficiency, and this (what we might call a sense of ‘incompleteness’, although I don’t think Schopenhauer uses this term) he calls suffering.
Since will is ever present and active in us, this state of lack, or suffering, is our baseline state. Happiness, therefore, is not a positive state in itself, but rather merely the privation, or negation, of this suffering.
Normally, we can only know external objects as ‘representation,’ which Schopenhauer considers to be illusory because this type of knowledge is derived from the human subject and therefore necessarily subject to, and constrained by, the PSR (a distinct human mode of perceiving). However Schopenhauer claims that we can gain access to the Platonic Ideas that each object is an instantiation of, through art.
The Platonic Ideas are unique in that they are necessarily object, a representation, since they are the grades of the objectification of the will, but they have retained only this, the first and most universal of all forms, that of being object for a subject. They exist beyond the PSR (not having entered into them, as Schopenhauer says)and thus are a higher form of knowledge than other objects. The Ideas are the essential in each object, lying underneath the inessential and therefore illusory details of the particulars.
Lifting ourselves above the particular things revealed in the representation to the universal Ideas is only possible by silencing the will and allowing the perceived object to fill ones consciousness, in effect, eliminating the subject/object division; a state Schopenhauer calls becoming a pure, will-less subject of knowing.
Art lets us break through the representation because it is a pausing and reproduction of the object which embodies only the essential, universal aspects (the Ideas). One example Schopenhauer gives is paintings of water (waterfalls, lakes, etc.) which reveal Ideas like formlessness and fluidity.
Most forms of art have this capacity to see through the representation to the Ideas contained within but music is the most powerful because unlike the other art forms, which are copies of the Ideas (different grades of objectification of the will), music is a copy of the will itself.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy comes to something of a grim end when we realise that the will, the core of what we are, is one because this means that we are all one (a notion expressed in the ancient Indian texts, the Vedas, as Tat Tvam Asi (thou art that), which Schopenhauer was one of the first in the West to embrace). This is such a painful realisation because it means the suffering of the entire world is actually our suffering.
The only resolution to this is to deny the will within each of us, and the only way to do this is through asceticism, which renders the will impotent. Ceasing to will in this way eliminates all desire and simultaneously eliminates all suffering.
In the final analysis then, Schopenhauer’s philosophy can be summarised as the diagnosis of the human condition (suffering) and a prescription of the antidote (asceticism). The continuing usefulness and importance of Schopenhauer’s philosophy doesn’t rest on this though. Although we might find some of Schopenhauer’s presuppositions or inferences unlikely, he did identify and partially illuminate several key themes that would find a fuller and more complete expression in later thinkers, particularly in existentialism.