Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The study of the inexplicable - beginning a stroll through Schopenhauer

A wise book blogger, returning from a tiring vacation, would plan to write on a topic that is comfortable and relaxing.  If only I were wise.  I plan to ramble a bit, despite my ignorance and lack of understanding, on the subject of Arthur Schopenhauer.

I have known for a while that, however reluctant I am to spend much time with philosophy, I would have to do something about Schopenhauer.  At some point in the late 19th century he becomes too strong of a presence to ignore – a presence in art, I mean, especially in music and literature.  Although the first edition of The World as Will and Representation dates from 1818, Schopenhauer’s ideas were almost completely unknown until the 1850s, when he started to attract attention and disciples.  His writing spread rapidly among English, French, and Russian writers as well as German.

My Austrian project broke my resistance.  Austrian and German writers and composers were suffused with Schopenhauer.  Now that I have read a bit of him, I see him everywhere, although I am not sure if his presence is always so meaningful.

I believe I read Schopenhauer in the easiest way possible, in R. J. Hollingdale’s Essays and Aphorisms (Penguin Classics, 1970), a translation, abridgement, and rearrangement of the 1851 Parerga and Paralipomena.  I will proceed as if Essays and Aphorisms is a text by Schopenhauer, but it is in fact a collaboration between Schopenhauer and Hollingdale, and for all I know only a travesty of the original, but it is eminently readable and well written (clear, memorable, vigorous, even funny).  Hollingdale’s long introduction shares Schopenhauer’s virtues, e.g. “Schopenhauer thought that he alone had understood Kant correctly, and he dismissed Kant’s other successors, especially  Hegel, as charlatans” (20), which gets to the point nicely.

Also helpful is that Schopenhauer relies on only a single jargon word, “will,” although he then makes it do an enormous amount of work.

Thing in itself signifies that which exists independently of our perception, that which actually is.  To Democritus it was matter; fundamentally this is what it still was to Locke; to Kant it was = x; to me it is will. (55)

Roughly (oh so roughly) speaking, “will” is something like the natural forces of the universe, including the forces that drive us without our volition, instinct, say, or the unconscious.  The part of our selves under our control is engaged in a continual struggle with the “will” of the world, a fight to even perceive it well.

What a relief it was to read this in Christopher Janaway’s short study Schopenhauer (Oxford, 1994):

As an exercise in metaphysics, Schopenhauer’s doctrine of the will as the thing in itself is so obviously flawed that some people have doubted whether he really means it – perhaps will is just a concept which explains a wide range of phenomena, and is not supposed to extend to the unknowable thing itself?  (33)

Ah ha, I am not the only one who could not see how Schopenhauer was solving his or Kant’s metaphysical difficulties (“The study of this inexplicable devolves upon metaphysics,” 117) so much as his own rhetorical problems, allowing him to quickly move on to more interesting questions, which is just what I will try to do tomorrow.


  1. The optimistic belief in progress and self-determination that we see in Kant, Hegel, Goethe and the early socialists received a major set back with the failure of the revolutions of 1848-9. The 1850's saw a cynical retreat from energetic action to introspection, melancholy and individual pleasures. Schopenhauer, ignored for thirty years during the era of the neo-hegelians, had already written the philosophy for the times--and he, much to his surprise, became suddenly very popular.

    It didn't hurt that he was such a colorful writer with an engaging and witty prose style. The World as Will and Idea is very readable and even entertaining. If you like your insight and entertainment with a little less Kantian philosophy, try to track down Vol. II of Parerga and Paralipomena (some of it is already in Hollingdale).

  2. It is an interesting confluence of events, isn't it, that after all of the political turmoil (and ongoing scientific and economic change), here was this living writer with a set of strong ideas that at least fit.

    The quotations from World as Will I have come across are as pungent and punchy as those that Hollingdale pulls from the later book. But you are right, I am probably best off reading more of P & P.

  3. I have this same book by Schopenhauer, but I got stuck in it long ago.

    I also have an amusing essay by Hollingdale, in which he argues that not merely did Nietzsche derive most of his philosophy from Schopanhauer, but he appears to have attributed to himself Schopanhauer's life too (the ignored outsider etc).

  4. I know nothing about Schopenhauer, so it will be interesting to read your thoughts on him, Tom.

  5. Hollingdale's intro is so good. How can I resist the strained politeness of this jab at "Hegel, who in any case suffered from genuine difficulty in expressing himself and who struggled consciously but in vain against an inadequate literary technique" (10).

    But of course Hollingdale is a specialist in Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, philosophers with more than adequate literary technique.

    I will find that piece on Nietzsche, which I believe is in the Cambridge Companion.

    Miguel, "thoughts" seems much to strong, but I guess it will have to do. I see that I avoided the standard one-word summary of Schopenhauer ("pessimism") - I will fix that in whatever I write tonight.

  6. obooki,

    Nietzsche was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer when he first started reading him in the later half of the 1860's.

    He is still a fan when he writes his thrid "Untimely Meditation" in 1874, but you can see that he is moving in a new direction and using Schopenhauer for his own ends.

    In the middle of the 1870's Nietzsche breaks away from both Schopenhauer and Wagner. Influenced by the ideas of his friend Paul Rée, he moves toward his own original philosophy. The basics are in place by the time he writes Morgenröte (The Dawn) in 1881 and he will develop these ideas further until his breakdown in 1888.

  7. Hey, I just wrote some of that myself!

    Hollingdale's argument is much more subtle than mere "influence," but is about how Nietzsche adapted the figure of Schopenhauer ("the Schopenhauer legend") to his own purposes, "Schopenhauer as an exemplary type of man, or at least of philosopher" (78).

  8. Yes, the phrase Nietzsche uses is for Schopenhauer is Erzieher, educator. And much like his approach to history, he takes what he finds is beneficial to life and discards the rest.