Schopenhauer. 3. The Will

What do you think might exist “outside of all time” and yet constitute “the inner being of man-in-himself”? Would you guess that it might have something to do with freedom? If you can come up with a persuasive answer, then you might just understand Arthur Schopenhauer.

The Principle of Sufficient Reason, though prefigured in ancient philosophy, received its definitive statement from Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz near the end of the 17th century, a little more than a hundred years before Schopenhauer. The principle applies to objects and to events: If a thing exists, it must have a sufficient reason for its existence as it is and not otherwise; if some event happens, it must have a sufficient reason for it happening as it does and not otherwise.

  Portrait of Arthur Schopenhauer in 1815

Schopenhauer regarded the Principle of Sufficient Reason as operationally descriptive of philosophical thinking, though in itself unprovable. As a university student he had an insight from which he never departed subsequently. He reasoned that while the Principle of Sufficient Reason genuinely guides our thinking, it must assume different forms and lead to different consequences depending on the categories of objects being considered. Philosophical errors occur when rules of thought (that is, applications of the Principle) appropriate for one category of objects are applied promiscuously to a distinct category of objects.

The young Schopenhauer defined 4 categories of objects, hence the title of his university dissertation – “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.” The categories were physical objects/events in nature, logical/abstract concepts, mathematical concepts, and human actions coupled with motivations. The first 3 categories were matched with sufficient reason via (1) cause and effect for physical objects, (2) logical analysis for abstract concepts, and (3) axiom and deduction for mathematics. In a previous blog we surveyed an attempt to combine the second and third categories, logic and mathematics, by 19th and 20th century thinkers such as Gottlob Frege, Alfred North Whitehead, and Bertrand Russell.

Schopenhauer’s 4th category was human action. He identified the will as the experience of motivations, inwardly perceived and connected with actions. He explained this concept, and also recognized the limits of explanation, as follows:

The Subject of knowledge can never be known; it can never become Object or representation. Nevertheless, as we have not only an outer self-knowledge (in sensuous perception), but an inner one also; and as, on the other hand, every knowledge, by its very nature, presupposes a knower and a known, what is known within us as such, is not the knower, but the willer, the Subject of Volition: the Will. Starting from knowledge, we may assert that “I know” is an analytical, “I will,” on the contrary, a synthetical, and moreover an à posteriori proposition, that is, it is given by experience – in this case by inner experience. In so far therefore the Subject of volition would be an Object for us. Introspection always shows us to ourselves as willing. In this willing, however, there are numerous degrees, from the faintest wish to passion, and I have often shown that not only all our emotions, but even all those movements of our inner man, which are subsumed under the wide conception of feeling, are states of the will.

Now, the identity of the willing with the knowing Subject, in virtue of which the word “I” includes and designates both, is the nodus of the Universe (Weltknoten), and therefore inexplicable. For we can only comprehend relations between Objects; but two Objects can never be one, excepting as parts of a whole. Here, where the subject is in question, the rules by which we know Objects are no longer applicable, and actual identity of the knower with what is known as willing – that is, of Subject and Object – is immediately given. Now, whoever has clearly realized the utter impossibility of explaining this identity will surely concur with me and calling it the miracle κατ’ εζοχήν [most eminent].[1]

He goes on to explain –

It is just because the willing Subject is immediately given in self-consciousness, that we are unable to further to define or to describe what willing is; properly speaking, it is the most direct knowledge we have, nay, one whose immediateness must finally throw light upon every other knowledge, as being very mediate.[2]

And explains further –

Motives…belong to causes, and have also been already numbered and characterized among them…. All causality…forms the link which connects changes one with another because being that which, coming from outside, conditions each occurrence. The inner nature of such occurrences on the contrary continues to be a mystery for us: for we always remain on the outside. We certainly see this cause necessarily produce that effect; but we do not learn how it is actually enabled to do so, or what is going on inside…. The effect produced by the motive, unlike that produced by all other causes, is not only known by us from outside, in a merely indirect way, but at the same time from inside quite directly and therefore according to its whole mode of action. Here we stand as it were behind the scenes and learn the secret of the process by which cause produces effect in its most inward nature; for here our knowledge comes to us through a totally different channel and in a totally different way. From this results the important proposition: The action of motives (motivation) is causality seen from within. Here accordingly causality presents itself in quite a different way, in quite a different medium, and for quite another kind of knowledge; therefore it must now be exhibited as a special and peculiar form of our principle, which presents itself consequently here as the Principle of the Sufficient Reason of Acting, principium rationis sufficienti agenda.

…The will is determined by the law of motives, in accordance with which it also secretly rules what is called the association of ideas…. The will of the individual…sets the whole mechanism in motion, by urging the intellect, in accordance with the interest, i.e., the individual aims, of the person, to recall, together with its present representations, those which either logically or analogically or by proximity in time or space are nearly related to them. The will’s activity in this, however, is so immediate that in most cases we have no clear consciousness of it; and so rapid that we are at times even unconscious of the occasion which has thus called forth a representation. In such cases it appears as if something had come into our consciousness quite independently of all connection with anything else; this, however, is impossible…. Every picture which suddenly presents itself to our imagination, every judgment even that does not follow its previously present reason, must be called forth by an act of volition having a motive; although that motive may often escape our perception owing to its insignificance, and although such acts of volition are often in like manner unperceived, because they take place so easily, that wish and fulfillment are simultaneous.[3]

Did you get that? He is trying to describe what can and cannot be known about the will.

In 1839 the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences posed the following scientific question and offered a prize for the best answer:


Arthur Schopenhauer welcomed the challenge. He answered “No” in an essay of some 100 pages, and he won the prize.

Schopenhauer’s reply to this question began with the observation that the mere physical capacity to carry out a project and the lack of external hindrances, which the unsophisticated person might call freedom, really was not the kind of freedom that the Norwegian Society had in mind. The question dealt not with physical freedom, as he called it, but with moral freedom. The unsophisticated person might be satisfied with the illusion of choosing freely, when in fact choice is determined by blind molecular forces. Moral freedom, then, must be something more than a product of genes and environment. Then what about moral freedom?  Can it be proven “from the evidence of self-consciousness?” The answer to the question was no, that the freedom of the will is not self-evident in human consciousness. We must understand that this answer depended in no way upon a materialistic viewpoint. The will always remained the centerpiece of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Yet the free operation of the will could not be verified, he said, on the basis of self-consciousness, even when self-consciousness makes the “undeniable assertion, ‘I can do what I will.'” That statement, he said, was a mere tautology, words without meaning. The crux of Schopenhauer’s argument is found in the following quote: 

[A person’s] immediate self-consciousness provides no information on the correctly understood question, while in respect to the question erroneously interpreted [as referring to physical freedom,] it was quite ready to give an answer. In the final analysis this is due to the fact that man’s will is his authentic self, the true core of his being; hence it constitutes the ground of his consciousness as something which is simply given and present and beyond which he cannot go. For he himself is as he wills, wills as he is. Therefore to ask him whether he could also will differently than he does is to ask whether he could also be other than himself; and that he does not know.[4]

This stance is similar to one we encountered in the last blog –

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.[5]

Likewise there is no way to test reproducibly hypotheses concerning the will. The will becomes known through its acts, but the public observer cannot test it, partly because the testing itself is an act of will, and testing therefore necessarily involves a meeting of 2 wills, not one.

Schopenhauer argued against the terms “free will” and “freedom of the will.” He wrote in polemic style in his later work, Parerga and Prolipomena, as follows:

Just to elude this terrible and exterminating difficulty [of God granting free will to his creatures], the freedom of the will, the liberum arbitrium indifferentiae, was invented. This contains an utterly monstrous fiction and was therefore always disputed and discarded long ago by all thinking minds, but perhaps nowhere is it refuted so systematically and thoroughly as in the above-quoted work. Let the mob labour under the freedom of the will if it likes; even the literary, the philosophical mob; what does it matter to us? The assertion that a given being is free, that is to say, can act under given circumstances thus and also otherwise, implies that it has an existentia without any essentia, in other words, that it merely is without being something and hence that it is nothing, but yet is, consequently that it simultaneously is and is not. Therefore this is the height of absurdity….[6]

Schopenhauer introduced a concept of character as that part of a person which, upon interaction with circumstances, determines moral and asthetic decisions. It is impossible, he said, that at a given moment of time and under a given set of circumstances, to which a person might react, the reaction is undetermined. If it were undetermined, then according to Schopenhauer the reaction would be lawless, governed by chance. But in fact, the reaction is a governed by the person’s character. In this scheme, will is not exactly the same thing as character, although Schopenhauer is not always crisp on the distinction. Will is formulated around a specific plan of action, while character is a deeper potentiality. Will is the output, of which circumstances and character form the input.

There is freedom in human action, according to Schopenhauer, but it is at the level of character which is deeper than nature and not to be found in the physical world. Here is how he described in Chapter 8, On Ethics, in Parerga and Prolipomena:

After reading my prize-essay on moral freedom, no thinking man can be left in any doubt that such freedom is not to be sought anywhere within nature, but only without. It is something metaphysical, but in the physical world something that is impossible. Accordingly, our individual deeds are by no means free; on the other hand, the individual character of each one of us is to be regarded as his free act. He himself is such because he wills once for all to be such. For the will exists in itself, even in so far as it appears in an individual. Thus it constitutes the individual’s primary and fundamental willing and is independent of all knowledge because it precedes this. From knowledge it obtains merely the motives wherein it successively develops its true nature and makes itself known or becomes visible. As that which lies outside time, however, it itself is unchangeable so long as it exists at all. Therefore everyone as such who exists now and under the circumstances of the moment, which, however, on their part occur with strict necessity, can never do anything other than what he is actually doing at that very moment. Accordingly, the entire empirical course of a man’s life in all its events great and small is as necessarily predetermined as are the movements of a clock. At bottom, this results from the fact that the manner in which the aforesaid metaphysical free act enters the knowing consciousness is an intuitive perception. Such perception has time and space as its form by means whereof the unity and indivisibility of that act now manifest themselves as drawn apart into a series of states and events that occur on the guiding line of the principle of sufficient reason (or ground) in its four aspects; and it is precisely this that is called necessary. But the result is a moral one, in that we know what we are from what we do, just as we know what we deserve from what we suffer.[7]

A shorter version of this concept appears in the prize-essay, On the Freedom of the Human Will:

This freedom [of character] is transcendental, i.e., it does not occur in appearance.  It is present only insofar as we abstract from the appearance and from all its forms in order to reach that which, since it is outside of all time, must be thought of as the inner being of man-in-himself.[8]

What does he mean? We return to the questions posed at the beginning of this blog. A 20th-century commentator, Konstantin Kolenda, suggested that Schopenhauer failed to make an adequate connection between something “transcendental… outside of all time” and any action that takes place in the real world of time and space.[9] Perhaps the suggestion of failure stems from the lack of a mechanism. But Schopenhauer also said that no mechanism should be sought. In the postmodern 21st century, are we ready to accept his freedom of character for what he says it is?


Next post:  Schopenhauer. 4. The Worst of All Possible Worlds

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Header image:  Reflections in a woodland stream, own photo, blue sky, yellow sun, and green leaves. Portrait of Schopenhauer by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl, 1815, Schopenhauer-Archiv der Stadt- und Universitätsbibliorhek Frankfurt am Main, Wikimedia commons, Public Domain.

[1] Schopenhauer, A. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Trans. by Mme. Karl Hillebrand. George Bell and Sons, London, 1903. URL, accessed 11/25/2016. Pp. 168-169.

[2] Ibid. Pp. 170-171.

[3] Ibid. Pp. 172-173.

[4] Schopenhauer, A. On the Freedom of the Will. Transl. Kolenda, K. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985. Pp. 21-22.

[5] Schopenhauer, A. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. P. 166.

[6] Schopenhauer, A. Fragments for the History of Philosophy, in Paregerga and Paralipomena. Full reference pending a trip to the library.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Schopenhauer, A. On the Freedom of the Will. P. 97.

[9] Ibid. Pp. xiii-xiv.


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