Arthur Schopenhauer. Part 1. Introduction

 Arthur Schopenhauer could see the worst in any situation. Witness these snippets, published in 1851:

Politeness is a tacit agreement that we shall mutually ignore and refrain from reproaching one another’s miserable defects, both moral and intellectual. In this way, they do not so readily come to light, to the advantage of both sides.

*  *  *

It is well known that evils are alleviated by the fact that we bear them in common. People seem to regard boredom as one of these and therefore get together in order to be bored in common. Just as the love of life is at bottom only fear of death, so too the urge to be sociable is at bottom not direct.

*  *  *

We should not join issue with anyone’s opinion, but must remember that, if we tried to talk him out of all the absurdities he believes, we might live to be as old as Methuselah without getting the better of him.

*  *  *

Now if a man gets the idea that he is much more necessary to me than I am to him, he at once feels as if I had stolen something from him; he will try to have his revenge and get it back. Superiority in our dealings with men results solely from our not needing them at all and our letting them see this. For this reason, it is advisable from time to time to let everyone feel, whether man or woman, that we can very well manage without them. This strengthens friendship….

Sharp and sarcastic, these pieces come from a book Arthur Schopenhauer wrote late in his life for a popular readership.[1] The book cemented his reputation as a brilliant pessimist, but it also led to growing interest in his more meaningful earlier work that centered on the will (die Wille in German).

Schopenhauer’s conceptualization of die Wille broke new ground in philosophy. His writings profoundly influenced Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Wagner, and he had more than a passing influence on Leo Tolstoy, Sigmund Freud, and many others. Because Schopenhauer wrote more perceptively and more consistently about the will than any other thinker, we shall spend some time looking at his work in this and the next 4 blogs.

schopenhauer-young-2
Arthur Schopenhauer as a young man

Let’s look back at his roots. Arthur’s parents, Heinrich and Johanna, each came from Dutch families who had found opportunity and wealth in Gdańsk (or Danzig), Poland. They married despite a 20-year age difference. Both were forceful figures, Heinrich excelling in trade and business, and Johanna, highly educated for her time, in arts and literature. The marriage did not produce happiness. Their 2 children, Arthur and his younger sister Adele, may have been scarred by parental conflict. The trauma worsened when Heinrich fell from an overhanging building and drowned in a canal, perhaps a suicide. At the time Arthur’s personality inclined already toward confrontational relations rather than collegial, perhaps a mix of inborn temperament and family turmoil. He had been closer to his father than to his mother, and the tragedy did not help.

After her husband’s death, Johanna Schopenhauer moved with Arthur and his sister to Weimar, where Johanna formed friendships in the community surrounding Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most prominent literary figure in Germany. She herself became a successful writer of essays and novels.

In Johanna’s salon Arthur met visiting experts in Hindu philosophy and religion, who inspired his early reading of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Arthur’s relations with his mother were stormy at times. He deprecated women in general, and he never married.

Perhaps it was his disinclination to please others that allowed a striking independence in his own thought. As he began university education in 1809, he took inspiration from the work of Immanuel Kant, whose illustrious life had ended just a few years earlier. On the other hand, he scorned the ascendant themes of German Idealism then propounded by Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Even in his university dissertation he began to attack their themes contemptuously.

Today the German Idealists merit scant interest, but the concepts formulated by Arthur Schopenhauer, I believe, remain current. At least I find myself deeply persuaded.

I first read Schopenhauer sometime in the 1980s while I worked as a junior faculty researcher and physician at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. His short book On the Freedom of the Human Will impressed me enough that I also bought and read his much more dense major work, The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung). Only recently did I obtain through the internet the free translation of his university thesis, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which reveals the initial crystallization of his ideas. Unlike some other thinkers, he remained remarkably constant to his main themes throughout his life.

I want to claim (and you can decide) that some of those themes match well with ideas expressed earlier in these blogs.

The first rule presented in this search for GSOT was “Every sentence is first person.” Schopenhauer heralded the same idea, although he used different language and drew a much broader stroke.  In the opening pages of The World as Will and Representation, he wrote–

That which knows all things and is known by none is the subject. It is accordingly the supporter of the world, the universal condition of all that appears, of all objects, and it is always presupposed; for whatever exists, exists only for the subject. Everyone finds himself as this subject, yet only in so far as he knows, not in so far as he is object of knowledge. But his body is already object, and therefore from this point of view we call it representation…. The subject, the knower never the known, does not lie within these forms…. We never know it, but it is precisely that which knows wherever there is knowledge.[2]

His statement that the subject is “that which knows wherever there is knowledge” is logically akin to “Every sentence is first person.” As I wrote in that blog,

To any sentence whatsoever, one can always add an appropriate prefix, for example,

                     “I/we judge that…”        to any declaration,

                     “I/we ask whether…”    to any question,

                     “I/we exclaim…”             to any exclamation,

and so forth, and the meaning of the sentence need not change at all. It is only necessary to ascribe “I/we” and a verb more or less accurately.

and further,

“I/we pose/declare/ask/exclaim…” flickers in the parting of lips, pulses with the touch of fingers on the keyboard, so quick it’s missed unless close attention is paid. This implicit introduction, if we only recognize it, precedes every utterance, and it means that no declaration, question, exclamation, or hypothesis can ever be presented objectively.

This thought is essentially the same as Schopenhauer’s idea expressed above, that the subject “is always presupposed.”

He disputed any kind of thinking that might propose to make subject into object. Notice in the  passage quoted above that the subject is the knower, but never the known. If we try somehow to express subject as object, the attempt would falsely assume an overarching viewpoint, which is not allowed by our Rule #2.

Schopenhauer did not allow the overarching viewpoint, the most common disaster for overly zealous philosophers. This stance is clear in a passage from his university dissertation:

There can be no knowledge of knowing, because this would imply separation of the Subject from knowing, while it nevertheless knew that knowing – which is impossible.

My answer to the objection, “I not only know, but know also that I know,” would be, “Your knowing that you know only differs in words from your knowing. ‘I know that I know’ means nothing more than ‘I know,’ and this again, unless it is further determined, means nothing more than ‘ego.’ …No doubt by leaving all special knowing out of the question, we may at last arrive at the proposition “I know” – the last abstraction we are able to make; but this proposition is identical with “Objects exist for me,” and this again is identical with “I am Subject,” in which nothing more is contained than in the bare word “I.”[3]

Schopenhauer prefigured pragmatism (our Rule #3) as early as 1819. One wonders if Charles Peirce encountered the following passage sometime before he originated (and eventually coined the term) pragmatism a quarter century later:

Object and representation are the same thing…. The true being of objects of perception is their action…. The demand for the existence of the object outside the representation of the subject, and also for a real being of the actual thing distinct from its action, has no meaning at all, and is a contradiction. Therefore knowledge of the nature of the effect of a perceived object exhausts the object itself in so far as it is object, i.e., representation, as beyond this there is nothing left in it for knowledge.[4]

Arthur Schopenhauer would have traced the distinction between the representation of a thing and the “real being of the actual thing” (often called the thing-in-itself, or Ding-an-sich) to Immanuel Kant, who emphasized the inability of the human mind ever to know the thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer didn’t even like the term thing-in-itself. If it can’t be known, how can one legitimately talk about its existence? Every sentence remains first-person, and what the first-person subject cannot know will never belong in a sentence, except as a negation.

In the section of these blogs devoted to pragmatism, we considered the proposition “Every event has its cause” (found here and in following blogs). This proposition is almost identical to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which received its name and emphasis from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the late 17th century. In his seminal university dissertation titled On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Schopenhauer interprets Leibniz as saying “that everything must have a sufficient reason for being as it is, and not otherwise.”[5] Schopenhauer regarded the principle itself as unprovable, but still important, as it emerges whenever a person engages in scientific or philosophical thinking. In the following passage, an acute awareness of self-reference is evident:

To seek a proof for the Principle of Sufficient Reason, is, moreover, an especially flagrant absurdity, which shows a want of reflection. Every proof is a demonstration of the reason for a judgment which is been pronounced, and which receives the predicate true in virtue precisely of that demonstration. This necessity for a reason is exactly what the Principle of Sufficient Reason expresses. Now if we require a proof of it, or, in other words, a demonstration of its reason, we thereby already assume it to be true, nay, we find our demand precisely upon that assumption, and thus we find ourselves involved in the circle of exacting a proof of our right to exact a proof.[6]

Thus the Principle of Sufficient Reason is not a provable principle, but it emerges as an operational principle whenever proving is practiced.

The idea was expressed earlier that “Every event has its cause” must recede and give way to the proposition of free will. Pragmatically I have to believe that the ideas I propose and the habits of responsive action that I form can produce effects in the world. However, the pragmatic assumption of my own efficient will stands in conflict with “Every event has its cause” and hence also in conflict with the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The resolution of this conflict comes when I decide that the principle of my efficient will trumps that of cause and effect. This echoes an assertion by Schopenhauer 198 years ago that the operation of cause and effect does not apply to relations between subject and object (A previous blog quoted part of the passage shown below concerning realism and idealism. Here we examine the whole thought.):

Now we must guard against the grave misunderstanding of supposing that…the relation of cause and effect exists between object and subject. On the contrary, this relation always occurs only between immediate and mediate object, and hence always only between objects. On this false assumption rests the foolish controversy about the reality of the external world, a controversy in which dogmatism and skepticism oppose each other, and the former appears now as realism, now as idealism. Realism posits the object as cause, and places its effect in the subject. The idealism of Fichte makes the object the effect of the subject. Since, however – and this cannot be sufficiently stressed – absolutely no relation according to the principle of sufficient reason subsists between subject and object, neither of these two assertions could ever be proved, and skepticism made triumphant attacks on both.[7]

Pragmatic pears for text 2
Pragmatic pears


Schopenhauer recognized that neither realism nor idealism can ever be proved. These major divisions of philosophy form a pragmatic pair. The underlying concept is even more profound. The will, which according to Schopenhauer presents both subject and object (as we shall see later), does not operate by cause and effect.

This brief introduction to Arthur Schopenhauer hints at a promise of something much greater. That promise rests in his expanded concept of will, the major theme of his life’s work, which might illuminate our path in search of GSOT. In following blogs we’ll examine the starting point for his philosophy and then look at his words directly addressing the will.

Next post:  Schopenhauer. Part 2. From Starting Point to One GSOT, or Two?

Previous post:  Who Let the Wild Ass Run Free? – Book of Job

Searching for GSOT outline:  Home


Header image:  Motlawa River in Gdańsk, from a lithograph 1890-1900, creator unknown, Wikimedia commons, Public Domain. Schopenhauer as a young man, posted by Aquarell to Wikimedia commons, original artist unknown, Public Domain. Pragmatic pears, own photo.

[1] Schopenhauer, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. 1851. The reference for this translation is pending a visit to the library.

[2] Schopenhauer, A. The World as Will and Representation (WAWR). Transl. Payne, E.F.J. Dover, New York, 1969. P. 5.

[3] Schopenhauer, A. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (4FR). Transl. Mme. Karl Hillebrand, George Bell and Sons, London, 1908. Chapter VII, p. 166. URL https://archive.org/details/onthefourfoldroo00schouoft, accessed 11/23/2016.

[4] Schopenhauer, WAWR, p. 14.

[5] Schopenhauer, 4FR, p. 5.

[6] Schopenhauer, 4FR, p. 27.

[7] Schopenhauer, WAWR, p. 13.

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