Schopenhauer. 2. From Starting Point to One GSOT, or Two?

In a search for GSOT, choosing a starting point is crucial. As we examine the pivotal philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, we need to ask: What was his starting point?

But is it really necessary to get back to a starting point? Can’t we just make decisions as we have done for decades, and our parents and grandparents before? Life is hard enough to figure out. Most of us are no longer teenagers searching for identity, and we don’t have the time to examine the beginnings of traditions and convictions by which we live.

To some extent, I agree with that view. Stick with your family’s and your community’s values. For many, it’s more about deciding who to trust than deciding what to believe.

Yet within each community someone should be charged with the task, or someone should feel the need, to examine the sources of values held in common. Are those sources mostly historical? Do they depend upon a group’s journey of faith in God, as most Americans will vouch?

Are history and faith all that we need? Even the best traditions need to re-examined in every generation. And what about those who reject traditional beliefs outright? The lesson for both believers and nonbelievers is that starting points should be questioned and discovered anew, if not by most people, at least by some.

Near the end of the Middle Ages the traditional teaching of the Schoolmen centered in Paris began to ossify. René Descartes decided that radical doubt would be his starting point for a new way of thinking. The era of modern philosophy began.


Arthur Schopenhauer

In an earlier blog we looked at the starting point of pragmatism as formulated by Charles Peirce, who urged that we should try to start from where we are. He said, “Let us not pretend to doubt in philosophy what we do not doubt in our hearts.”[1] Starting pragmatically from where we are, however, turns out to be more difficult than expected.


Historically Arthur Schopenhauer came well after Descartes and a little before Peirce. How did Schopenhauer define his starting point?


I believe the answer may be found in his short essay titled Reference to Ethics, published in 1836 as part of a book called On the Will in Nature. There Schopenhauer tells us that

Philosophers…notwithstanding their differences in other respects, all, excepting the strictly materialistic philosophic systems, agree in this one point: that what is most important, nay, alone essential, in our whole existence, that on which everything depends, the real meaning, pivot or point (sit venia verbo) of it, lies in the morality of human actions.

In consequence he asserts that

Metaphysic should give support to Ethics.[2]

Those words look awfully strange to modern readers. I want to amplify his meaning and to contrast it with a modern, positivist presentation by Bertrand Russell – the kind of starting point for knowledge that I grew up with as a member of the post-World War II baby boomer generation.

Getting back to Schopenhauer’s words, how shall we understand “Metaphysic”? It’s a word little used today, but perhaps we can think of it as the generative order that underpins the laws of nature, the root principle that supports GSOT – the grand scheme of things. Metaphysic sounds like a starting point.

We are more familiar with “Ethics,” but viewpoints differ. One might say that ethics is the study of good and evil, but Augustine characterized it as the ordering of lesser and greater goods. Ethics seems to have much to do with the idea of choosing and thus with the will. For many people, ethics proceeds in accordance with God’s will. Others see ethics as a human affair dependent on human will. And there are some who find no basis for will at all. Their explanations supporting some kind of ethical system, apart from human will, tend to be indirect, long, and convoluted, if they decide to fuss with it at all.

Pragmatism tends to view ethics as both the basis and the product of decision-making – that is to say, ethics is simply indistinguishable from choices, divine or perhaps human. Through his focus on the will, Schopenhauer had a somewhat similar notion, though differently expressed, and he foreshadowed pragmatism by stating

The only Metaphysic which really and immediately supports Ethics is that one which is itself primarily ethical and constituted out of the material of Ethics.

With this goal in mind, Schopenhauer described the task for his philosophy as follows:

Now arises the difficult problem to show that, contrary to all experience, the physical order of things depends upon a moral one, and to find out a connection between the force which, by acting according to the eternal laws of nature, gives the world stability and the morality which has its seat in the human breast.

His answer was to develop

…a system which places the reality of all existence and the root of the whole of nature in the Will, and in this will places the root of the world.

His key insight and starting point, from which he did not stray in a lifetime of thinking and writing, was that

…the active and impulsive force in Nature which presents this perceptible world to our intellect, is identical with the will within us.[3]

These ideas go against the grain, as Schopenhauer himself acknowledged with his remark quoted above that they are “contrary to all experience.”

Indeed, those of us who grew up with 20th century modernism are accustomed to hearing quite the opposite. Rather than something in nature “identical with the will within us”, we are urged to conclude that there is no relation between “the physical order of things/laws of nature” on the one hand and “will/ethics” on the other. Steven Jay Gould in 1997 introduced the term “non-overlapping magisteria” to describe the separation between science on the one hand and human purposes, meanings, and values – i.e., ethics – on the other.[4]

Gould was echoing a theme of earlier thinkers such as Bertrand Russell. In 1925 Russell, co-author of Principia Mathematica and a key contributor to 20th century positivism, wrote

The philosophy of nature is one thing, the philosophy of value is quite another.  Nothing but harm can come of confusing them.  What we think good, what we should like, has no bearing whatever upon what is, which is the question for the philosophy of nature.  On the other hand, we cannot be forbidden to value this or that on the ground that the nonhuman world does not value it, nor can we be compelled to admire anything because it is a “law of nature.”  Undoubtedly we are part of nature, which has produced our desires, our hopes and fears, in accordance with which the physicist is beginning to discover.  In this sense we are part of nature; in the philosophy of nature we are subordinated to nature, the outcome of natural laws, and their victims in the long run.

The philosophy of nature must not be unduly terrestrial; for it, the earth is merely one of the smaller planets of one of the smaller stars of the Milky Way….  Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naive humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy.  All such philosophies spring from self-importance and are best corrected by a little astronomy.

But in the philosophy of value the situation is reversed.  Nature is only a part of what we can imagine; everything, real or imagined, can be appraised by us, and there is no outside standard to show that our valuation is wrong.  We are ourselves the ultimate and irrefutable arbiters of value, and in the world of value nature is only a part.  Thus in this world we are greater than nature.  In the world of values, nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad, deserving of neither admiration nor censure.  It is we who create value and our desires which confer value.  In this realm we are kings, and we debase our kingship if we bow down to nature.  It is for us to determine the good life, not for nature…..[5]

Russell clearly embraces a dualism here – not a dualism of substance, as Descartes advocated, but rather a dualism of thought. He searched for GSOT through positivism, but when he brought “the good life” into the picture, he had to acknowledge not one GSOT, but two.

On the surface Russell’s description of the two grand schemes, two philosophies, seems to have symmetry and to give equal weight to each.

Look more closely, however, and you will note Russell’s fundamental deference to the philosophy of nature.  Notice first that the question of “what is” can be answered only by the philosophy of nature.  The corresponding question for the philosophy of value is merely “what we should like.”  Nature is said to have produced our desires, hopes, and fears, but there is no converse statement that our choices of value can produce anything in nature. Likewise we shall ultimately become the victims of nature in Russell’s view, but he makes no mention of our ability to change nature.  Finally, note the comparison between “the great world” of nature, which is unconcerned about our happiness, and “this world” of values, in which nature is a neutral actor.

snake-swallows-mouse-585333-2How can Russell say that we are nature’s victims and, at the same time, speak of the neutrality of nature? Think of a scene that might be familiar. Suppose you are watching a television wildlife special in which a mouse is stalked, killed, and swallowed by a snake. From a cushioned sofa, you watch impassively. You have seen this kind of thing so many times there is no shock at all, no shiver of fright felt in sympathy with the doomed creature.  In the larger picture, however, you and I are the victims. If nature is neutral, then it seems we must look upon our own lives as impassively as we look upon the life of that frail mouse. Why are we urged to regard nature and, by implication, death as neutral in our worlds of value?

Science and more broadly positivism, Russell’s philosophy of nature, are to be pursued dispassionately in order to avoid bias in the quest for truth. Yet scientists give testament to joy in the quest for truth inspiring their commitment. One of Russell’s statements sounds odd when you assess it carefully–

…the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad….

This world is not good, and yet he calls it great. It inspires awe. It calls for devotion from those who wish to discover its secrets. Many have regarded nature as the hand of providence, the bringer of good things, and the essential source of beauty. Is their enthusiasm to be discarded?

Scientists are human, and perhaps they deserve a little leniency when they regard their field of endeavor as the only one suffused with real meaning, just as poets, politicians, soldiers, and bloggers do.

A most unavoidable fact about the world of nature is that I am in it. Too often we try to stand outside ourselves to view the world in a neutral way. That doesn’t work, and Schopenhauer knew it. Just as he sensed a will at work in his own thoughts and actions, he sensed a will at work in the world.

One does not ask for evidence that validates this broader will at work in the world. Instead one confronts a choice to be made. Schopenhauer’s will at work in the world is not to be discovered, much less to be created. It is to be declared by response from the will inside of you.

Schopenhauer was not an existentialist, but he was a forerunner. When Friedrich Nietzsche happened upon Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung early in his career, he found the spark to ignite his life’s philosophic fervor. That work evokes a profound sense of will, observed in the individual life, as a window on the source of GSOT, the Metaphysic underlying all reality. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidigger, Camus and other existentialists emphasize the individual’s choice to engage the world with passion regardless of external circumstances.

This is the will in action. Along with it, the existentialists emphasize an acute consciousness of self, the unique and irreproducible apprehension that I have a place in the world.

Even this idea was expressed forcefully already by Schopenhauer. The following passage from his Parerga and Paralipomena begins with observations similar to those quoted above from Bertrand Russell, but turns toward an opposite conclusion:

When one looks outwards, where the vastness of the world and the infinitude of its beings display themselves, one’s own self as a mere individual shrinks to nothing and seems to vanish. Carried away by this very immensity of mass and number, one thinks further that only the outwardly directed, and hence objective, philosophy can be on the right path; it had never even occurred to the oldest Greek philosophers to doubt this. On the other hand, if we look inwards, we find in the first place that every individual takes an immediate interest only in himself; indeed he has his own self more at heart than all else put together. This comes from the fact that he knows directly only himself, but everything else merely indirectly. Now if in addition we consider that conscious and knowing beings are conceivable solely as individuals, but that those without consciousness have only a half-existence, one that is merely mediate, then all real and true existence comes down to individuals. Finally, we call to mind that the object is conditioned by the subject, that this immeasurable outside world, therefore, has its existence only in the consciousness of knowing beings. Consequently, this world is so definitely tied to the existence of individuals who are its bearers that it can in this sense be regarded even as a mere equipment, an accident, of the always individual consciousness. If we bear all this in mind, we arrive at the view that only the inwardly directed philosophy, starting from the subject as that which is immediately given, and hence the philosophy of the moderns since Descartes, is on the right lines and that the ancients have, therefore, overlooked the main point. But of this we become perfectly convinced only when we descend into and commune with ourselves and bring to our consciousness the feeling of originality which resides in every knowing being. More than this, everyone, even the most insignificant, finds himself in his simple self-consciousness as the most real of all beings and necessarily recognizes in himself the true centre of the world, indeed the primary source of all reality. And could this ultimate consciousness lie? Its most powerful expression is the words of the Upanishad: hae omnes creaturae in totum ego sum, et praeter me ens aliud non est, et omnia ego creatafeci (Oupnek’hat, Pt. 1, p. 122). This of, course, is the transition to illuminism and even mysticism. This, then, is the result of inwardly directed contemplation, whereas the outwardly directed shows us as the goal of our existence a heap of ashes.

[Translation of the Latin: ‘I am all this creation collectively, and besides me there exists no other being. I have created everything.’][6]

Consciousness of self has been critically important to Schopenhauer and his heirs. Just prior to the long quote I described this consciousness as “the unique and irreproducible apprehension that I have a place in the world,” but I was tempted to say “the unique and irreproducible apprehension that each of us has a place in the world.” The latter expression would be invalid. How could it be unique if true for each and each and each…? I cannot vouch for the uniqueness and irreproducibility that you and others apprehend.

Does this kind of thinking leave me uniquely alone, and you as well? No. We can make a valid statement that the two of us, the meeting of you and me, also have our place in the world, unique and irreproducible. This is a statement we can make together, but not a statement to be made for us as each and each individual. The distinction is not trivial.

Schopenhauer seems not to have made such a distinction. “How can my (our) will engage the world?” became to him a question of how the individual mind can engage the world. His lucid suggestion was that engagement between the individual mind and world makes sense only if the world is also driven by will. It is a thought that continues to inspire, a thought that leaves no room for a sense of neutrality and impassivity of nature.


Next post:  Schopenhauer. 3. The Will

Previous post:  Schopenhauer. 1. Introduction

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Header image: Decision time. By qimono, Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain. Snake and mouse, by sipa, Pixabay, CC0, Public Domain. Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer by Jules Lunteschütz, photograph of the painting  in Public Domain, Wikimedia commons.

[1] Peirce, C.S., Some consequences of four incapacities. Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1868; 2:140-157.  Reproduced in Charles S. Peirce: Selected Writings, ed. Wiener, P.P. Dover, New York, 1958.

[2] Preceding quote and this one. Schopenhauer, A. Reference to Ethics, in On the Will in Nature. Trans. by Mme. Karl Hillebrand. George Bell and Sons, London, 1903. URL, accessed 11/25/2016. P. 372.

[3] Ibid. This and preceding quotes from pp. 372-373.

[4] Follow this link to review the starting point for the philosophy of positivism.

[5] Russell, B. “What I Believe,” in Why I Am Not a Christian and other essays. Ed. Paul Edwards. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957, pp. 55-56.

[6] Schopenhauer, A. Parerga and Paralipomena. Volume 2. Chapter 1: On Philosophy and Its Method. Full reference pending a visit to the library.


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