The Philosophy of Schopenhauer

767690I came across Bryan Magee’s book, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, in a particularly touching way. The librarian at my school, John, was friends with a philosopher from Seattle who had died suddenly. Lacking any close family, it was left to John to take care of his friend’s meagre estate, which consisted of few things other than a small library of books. John called to tell me that his friend would have wanted these books passed along to people who would appreciate them, and so I ended up with this volume on Schopenhauer, as well as another one dealing with the philosophy of humor. Though I never knew the original owner, I still feel a real sense of privilege to have this artifact handed down to me. It makes me feel connected, by philosophical interest, to a person I never met. Philosophy has that power.

The book itself is a thorough and very sympathetic account of Arthur Schopenhauer’s life, his philosophy and his intellectual effect on others. It consists of two main sections: the first is a comprehensive account of Schopenhauer’s philosophical system, while the second consists of a series of appendices detailing Schopenhauer’s influence on such figures as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann and many more.

Schopenhauer is a thinker who I was never introduced to by my teachers while studying philosophy. I first learned of his ideas on my own through reading Nietzsche (another thinker avoided by most of my teachers), who accepted the Schopenhauerian worldview while rejecting his “pessimism.” I put pessimism in scare quotes, because Magee makes the point early on in his book that there really is nothing inherently pessimistic in Schopenhauer’s philosophy as such:

“Non-pessimism is equally compatible with his philosophy. The traditional identification of him in terms of his pessimism is largely irrelevant to a serious consideration of him as a philosopher: I am tempted to say that this is a view of his writings which leaves his philosophy out.” (p. 13)

Magee’s point is that the “pessimism” of Schopenhauer is a psychological aspect of the man, not of his philosophical system. Indeed, his philosophy itself shares many things in common with religious systems like Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which offer paths toward the successful reconciliation of human-being with ultimate reality; hardly a pessimistic message. So although Schopenhauer himself uses vocabulary that suggests a rather dark and despairing orientation toward the wold, one could accept all that Schopenhauer describes while still remain cheery and optimistic – or just “agnostic” – in one’s attitude. In fact, as noted above, that is precisely what Nietzsche did.

Personally, while I understand that many people are resistant to pessimism, and that many regard it as a term of criticism when leveled against philosophical belief systems, I am not one of them. Pessimism is actually preferable in my mind to the sort of blind and vapid optimism that many people seem to accept as an unquestioned “good,” and which is generally encouraged and considered the sign of a healthy mind. To me, pessimism can very often be realistic and more sensitive to the world’s actual suffering than shallow optimism. In fact, I prefer sensitive and caring pessimists to insensitive and uncaring optimists who think that just by putting on a happy face, everything will be alright! So while I appreciate Magee’s point about Schopenhauer’s own pessimistic personality, I also think it unnecessary to defend his philosophy against it.

It is refreshing to read a book by someone who enthusiastically embraces the philosophy that he is writing about, and Magee is certainly an author who deals with the content of Schopenhauer’s ideas in a wonderfully personal, passionate, detailed and, at many points, surprising way. Beginning with  Schopenhauer’s early work, as contained in On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and devoting most space to an analysis of The World as Will and Representation, Magee goes on to place Schopenhauer within a philosophical tradition of modern, western philosophers working through the implications of Kantian philosophy. The thinkers in this tradition, he emphasizes, exist in the shadow of Descartes, who Schopenhauer thought was an important philosopher for three reasons: 1) He rejected external authority as validation for his arguments; 2) He established that “objective” reality is far less certain than “subjective” experience; 3) He formulated the central issue of modern philosophy in asking “What can I know? And how can I know what I know?” (p. 57) Schopenhauer’s own engagement with these issues led him on a path culminating in the construction of a grand, transcendental idealist system that, while resembling religious doctrines from the east, was developed (Magee argues) independent of those doctrines. The fact that his philosophy shares such a close affinity with ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism, while being developed from a western perspective, suggests, perhaps, that there is something transcultural about the truths articulated by Schopenhauer.

schopenhauer-y-kantThe transcendental idealist position holds that our understanding of reality is constituted by the mental imposition of a priori conceptual categories upon the data of perception. This is in contrast to the empiricist claim that our understanding of reality is built directly from perceptions, and that the way the world appears to us is (in some way, shape, or form) indicative of the way the world really is objectively. Transcendental idealists, however, dispute that the “objective” world could possibly be anything like our perceptions. Since the categories of our minds actively mold, shape, organize, and indeed distort, perceptual data into a subjective world of lived experience, our subjective world is of necessity different from the world as it is in-itself independent of our experience. This is the fundamental distinction that Kant insisted upon – and that Schopenhauer applauded – between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms. Our experienced, phenomenal reality is a product of the mind’s interpretive powers, and since we cannot step outside of our own minds, we cannot step out of the phenomenal world. And since we cannot step outside of our phenomenal world, there is no possible way for us to know anything about the “objective,” noumenal world that exists independently of us. According to the transcendental idealist, trying to know what objective reality is like independent of our mental interpretations would be like trying to know what the world really looks like independent of our eyes.

One of the key issues that Magee devotes a great deal of attention to in his book is the charge, promoted by empirical philosophers, that transcendental idealism culminates in solipsism; the view that the world is simply the product of the mind. In solipsism, the objective world evaporates altogether, leaving us with nothing more than mind dependent appearances. As Magee tells us, “I have often heard professional philosophers in Britain, including gifted ones, assert that according to transcendental idealism ‘everything exists in the mind, or in minds’ or ‘existence is mental.’ This is a radical error.” (p. 73) The reason why this is an erroneous view is very simple. Both Kant and Schopenhauer clearly recognize the need for some sort of independently existing, objective realm in order to provoke the mind to engage in the process of conceptual interpretation. Knowledge requires both subject and object. Thus, neither of these thinkers deny the existence of an extra-mental world; only that we can ever know that world independent of our thinking about it. Transcendental idealists don’t claim that the objective world does not exist. They only deny that we have direct access to it, or that our subjective understanding of objective reality bears any resemblance to the world of uninterpreted reality. Like the Hindus, they claim that there is a perpetual “veil” of illusion hiding the true nature of the universe from us.

Kant referred to the objective world that exists independent of human thought as the Ding-an-Sich (Thing-in-itself). Schopenhauer’s own system puts “the will” in its place; a development that Magee claims is an improvement, drawing out certain implications of Kantian philosophy that Kant himself did not fully realize. According to Schopenhauer, the objective, noumenal world cannot be, as Kant claimed, a thing at all. Rather, it must be an unbroken unity possessing no parts or boundaries whatsoever. Since the existence of things comes about only by way of the mind’s imposition of time and space upon the the raw data of perception, “things” only exist in the phenomenal, time and space bound world of human interpretation. Independent of that world, the very idea of a “thing” ceases to make sense, and if this is the case, then noumenal reality must be a realm in which there are no distinctions, no boundaries, no divisions. It must be unbroken and singular. According to Schopenhauer, the will is the substance that best embodies these characteristics.

When we aim our attention outwards, using the physical senses, we encounter the will through three filters of interpretation: 1) Time 2) Space and 3) Causality. The phenomenal world that is built out of sensory data is a world of things, located in time and space, interacting with one another according to the laws of cause and effect. However, when we turn our attention inward, toward consciousness itself, we bypass two of these mind-dependent filters, encountering reality more directly, through the single filter of inner time consciousness. It is in this manner, by reflecting on the interior movement and force of thought itself, that we come as close as possible to a direct encounter with the noumenal realm. And it is there that we discover the will, pulsing with primal ferocity.

Magee tells us that Schopenhauer knows he has not deductively “proved” the equation of the will and noumenal reality. That sort of demonstration is, in principle, impossible when discussing matters relating to the objective world as it exists independent of the human understanding. However, Schopenhauer thinks he has offered good reasons for accepting his doctrine, and that by directing readers inward, he has, in a sense, taken us by the hand to show how we may make the same sort of discovery that he himself has made: turn inward and you yourself will confront the will, a vital force of energy, which constitutes the underlying and unitary foundation of all existence. “The whole universe is the objectification of this force.” (p. 139)

Although Schopenhauer is clear that it is not an anthropomorphic entity, Magee suggests that his choice of this term “will” to designate noumenal reality has led precisely to this sort of misunderstanding:

“He has given it the name ‘will’ for no other reason than that the nearest we as experiencing subjects can come to a direct apprehension of it is through manisfestation of primal energy that each one of us experiences in inner sense as the ordinary drive of life, the ongoing thrust, however weak, of being alive…” (p. 142)

ElectricityNonetheless, confusion has occurred, and Magee tells us that occult readings of Schopenhauer abound in which the will is construed as some sort of spiritual world consciousness rather than as the aimless force of energy that Schopenhauer intended. This force manifests in its most complicated form as human consciousness, but it is human consciousness that is the product of will, not the other way around. Gravity, minerals, plants and animals are also products of the primal will, and so it is a mistake to think of will as equivalent to our own human experience of it. In human consciousness, the will gains its most complicated – and thus its most tortured – objectification. But, Schopenhauer insists, such consciousness is continuous with the rest of nature, and not qualitatively different from other non-consicous manifestations. The will, as it exists independent of human consciousness, is timeless and spaceless. It does not think or feel or care. It simply pulses and moves, endlessly objectifying itself in all of the manifestations that comprise the natural world. There is nothing supernatural or spiritual about it at all. The world as will has no ultimate meaning or purpose. It is simply a blind force of energetic striving.

“Bleak, bleak, bleak!” some say, and Schopenhauer does not disagree. He writes:

“life is deeply steeped in suffering, and cannot escape from it; our entrance to it takes place amid tears, at bottom its course is always tragic, and its end more so.” (p. 220)

Magee, as mentioned above, thinks it a mistake to equate Schopenhauer’s philosophy with pessimism. However, the philosopher himself did draw this very implication. Human life, being one of many manifestations of a blind, senseless will, is spent perpetuating itself for no other reason than that it must express itself, the way that electricity must conduct down a wire. This is the will to life, and Schopenhauer sees in this drive the root of our suffering. We take up projects, anxiously pursuing them until we fall into boredom upon their completion, at which time we anxiously take up other projects. The will to life, then, consists of a never ending vacillation between anxiety and boredom. The only types of consolation that are available to us, according to Schopenhauer, are aesthetic experiences in which we lose ourselves for a finite period of time by being absorbed into the rhythms of music or getting lost in the scenery of a painting. Sex also offers escape. But all of these distractions are only temporary. Songs come to an end; we must eventually turn away from paintings; sexual acts can’t go on forever.

You might think suicide would be an option, but surprisingly Schopenhauer councils against it, seeing suicide as “a form of aggression and quite specifically an assertion of self-will.” (p 222) In suicide there is no escape from suffering, but the aggravation of it, as the suicide must anxiously will him or herself to commit the act in the first place. And once dead, the will that was manifest in the body is reunited with the primal, universal will once more to become objectified to suffer yet again.

schopenhThe only real escape comes through turning against the will to life through aseticism. In this, a person ceases to desire altogether, and like in Buddhism and Hinduism, becomes reconciled with the impermanent nature of the universe. But this cannot be accomplished through willing it to be. The will to life must evaporate through an understanding of the ultimate nothingness of our world. When we come to realize that no-thing is ultimately real or important, then the chains that bind us are slackened and we find ourselves melting away into the buzzing backdrop that is the universe, feeling no separation, no distinction between ourselves and all the other manifestations that arise out of the noumena. We realize that everything is, at its foundation, one. Once this is understood, then there is no need for further painful striving.

Is this pessimism? If it is, it seems to me no more or less pessimistic than Buddhism or Hinduism, systems which, apparently, many people find comforting and consoling. So maybe pessimism, despite the complaints of Magee, is not such a terrible thing.

I enjoyed reading The Philosophy of Schopenhauer a great deal. Magee’s treatment of this man’s philosophy is careful, sympathetic and very thorough. But beyond this, I found it extremely edifying to read a book concerned with themes of universal unity while actually experiencing a sense of connectedness with three philosophers – Schopenhauer, Magee, and the original owner of this book – who I have never met.

In philosophy, we all share something in common.