Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig. His father was a wealthy businessman, his mother
a novelist. He was educated privately
and at schools in several countries before entering Göttingen University to
study science and medicine. Becoming interested in philosophy he transferred to
Berlin University and attended the lectures of Fichte and Schleiermacher
(though he did not think much of them). The publication of his main work in
1819 secured him a lectureship at Berlin. Having unsuccessfully attacked
Hegel's ideas he retired into seclusion to continue his research and writing
(and was fortunate not to be short of money). Of a neurotic disposition and fond of the good things of life (wine, women,
and song) he was entertaining and witty when in the company of people he could
get on with. By the time he died his
philosophy had started to attract scholarly interest.
 In his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of
Sufficient Reason, Schopenhauer sets out an analysis of the phenomenal
world, that is, the world of our ideas (Vorstellungen),
or things which are 'presented' to our 'subjective' minds. He distinguishes four classes of presentations and four ways in
which they are connected with other objects, namely becoming, knowing, being,
and action. And our knowledge of
each class, he says, is governed by a corresponding form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason which determines relations between phenomena (but does not apply
to the phenomenal world as a whole or to any reality which might be supposed to
lie outside phenomena).
(1) Empirical presentations comprising
form and matter, namely physical objects. Schopenhauer sees the 'matter' of such
presentations (sensations) as being organized by the activity of the mind
through a priori forms of sensibility (intuition)
of space and time, and related by the one pure form (or 'category') of the understanding causality. Our knowledge of
such presentations is explained by the principle of sufficient reason of becoming.
(2) Abstract concepts. These are
related in judgements, and that the relevant principle of
sufficient reason is that of knowing. If a judgement is grounded in another (as its
sufficient reason), it is said to be true and can only then provide knowledge.
(3) A priori forms of intuition (space and time). The principle of sufficient reason of being determines how each part of space or time relates to another. In space the law is of relations in position
(and is the basis of geometry), while time is governed by the law of
irreversible succession (and is the basis of arithmetic).
(4) The subject which has the presentations, namely, the self. In this case the principle of sufficient
reason is action; for Schopenhauer
sees the self as the agent who brings about consequences as a result of
This analysis constitutes an introduction
to his major work, The World as Will and
Idea, the central assumption of which is that "the world is my idea". By
this Schopenhauer means that the phenomenal world consists of one's
intuitive presentations, spatially and temporally structured and causally
related as a consequence of respectively the forms of intuition and the form of
understanding [Vol. I, Bk 1]. Unlike animals man can reflect about this world through abstract
concepts and can intuit directly the forms organizing our experience. For Schopenhauer the phenomenal world is made up not only of the
structured appearances of matter but also of the perceiving subject itself [b]. Matter and intelligence, he says, are "inseparable correlates".
Does the phenomenal world therefore exhaust reality? Schopenhauer says it does not. Underlying appearance (which he compares to the 'veil of Maya' or
illusion in the Indian Upanishadic philosophy) is the noumenal realm or realm
of things-in-themselves. Now
while Kant had said that this realm is intrinsically unknowable, Schopenhauer
identified it with a
single Will devoid of all
multiplicity. (He dismissed the kinds of
rationalist and idealist 'transcendent' metaphysical speculation that would
have been rejected by Kant) [Vol. I, Bk 2] [c]. He comes to this view through an examination
of action. By looking within ourselves
we find that the action of
our bodies is nothing other than
volition which has become 'objectified' as presentation. Each individual is a manifestation or aspect
of the one Will, which Schopenhauer goes on to say is found also throughout
Nature as forces, desires, impulses and instincts whether in inorganic or
organic beings [d]. It is, he says, "eternal striving" and also
"the will to live" [Vol. I, Bk 4].
 [See especially Vols II, chs 1-4] Knowledge for Schopenhauer is
limited to presentations, intuitions, abstract concepts, and to the self as the
subject of volition [a]. We can know nothing of what lies beyond
phenomena except through its objectification in the phenomenal world and our
own individual wills. And indeed he
regards the function of
knowledge as primarily practical. The value of concepts lies in the use that can be made of them to order
the data of perception, and to communicate particularly ethical
principles. Perception itself is important in that it enables
both man and other animals to provide for their immediate physical and
sociological needs food, shelter, and so on; while in the case of man,
reason helps him to discover more sophisticated techniques, such as tool-making and building. Reason or intellect, however, is in the last
analysis the servant of the will [b]. Nevertheless, despite the restrictions
Schopenhauer places on reason, he admits what he calls intuition at the level of perceptual
knowledge; this enables us to transcend practical considerations and achieve
insight into the noumenal realm as manifested in organized Nature. Knowledge of any attributes the Will may
possess in itself, however, is a matter for mystical experience; philosophy can
have nothing to say about them [c]. This leads him on to his theory of aesthetics
especially Vol. III, chs 34-39.] Schopenhauer's philosophy is broadly pessimistic. He sees all beings as engaged in a constant
battle with each other and the world in general. This is because all things are manifestations of an irrational will to
live [III, ch. 28] and
are thus engaged in incessant striving for a 'satisfaction' which can never be
achieved. This desire, Schopenhauer
says, is pain or evil, happiness being relief from this pain [a]. However, it is possible
to escape from this life of misery through art and by means of asceticism. He holds the view that the will objectifies itself
through Platonic Ideas before it is manifested in individual things [I,
Bk 3] [b]. He thinks of the Ideas as
original species or forms, of which individual things are "empirical
correlates", and as the universal forces revealed in the natural laws by which
things are governed. Now, reason, once it has enabled man
to satisfy his physical needs, can be released from this practical role and can
lead to "will-less" contemplation of beauty (as Idea presented in perception),
or of the sublime [c] (as when the Will,
objectified in the form of the human body, is apprehended as a threat by virtue
of its power of greatness). Man can free himself from the
Will's enslavement by intuiting this directly, non-conceptually and objectively
through art. The 'poetical arts',
offer different degrees of objective contemplation of lower grade Ideas. Tragedy is the highest form [I, Bk III, 51]; and Schopenhauer understands this as depicting a battle with
will, manifesting itself as fate (chance, error), and in self-destructive human
action. In consequence the actors are 'purified',
surrender to fate, and lose the will to live. There is, he says, no 'poetic justice' or reconciliation in tragedy. But it is music [III, ch. 3] which he sees as the highest of the arts because it alone
exhibits the inner nature of the thing-in-itself, namely, the Will [d]. Nevertheless, aesthetic contemplation provides only a temporary
respite. To achieve permanent release
the will within us, the "wild beast", must be opposed.
[III, chs 40-9.] Given this somewhat negative conclusion,
there seems to be little room for a meaningful ethic. However, Schopenhauer allows for the
possibility that the
individual intellect may come to 'penetrate' or see through the 'veil of Maya'
(that is, grasp its illusory nature) in a series of stages, each stage
representing a higher level of moral progress [e]. Thus the individual may come to recognise
other beings as in the same situation as himself and therefore do them no
harm. This is the just man who overcomes egoism. He may then see the totality of beings as
appearances of the one undivided Will and thus reach the level of sympathy or
love (agape as against eros which is self-centred). However, Schopenhauer rejects any such notion as ultimate
perfectibility of man or society. Finally, the
highest level is attained through self-denial, asceticism: the Will itself is
denied and 'abolished' [f]. Suicide is not an option of suicide, because
this would be to give in to the Will. Nevertheless, it would seem that in death all is extinguished,
and that there can be no personal immortality [g], the
individual being but appearance. "Before us there is indeed only nothingness",
he says. The function of philosophy is
now seen to be to promote contemplation and renunciation. Intuition has to be lifted up to the level of
conceptual reasoning so as to give us the requisite insight. His metaphysics is thus
ultimately subordinated to man's existential and ethical needs [h].
Perhaps the most
significant feature of Schopenhauer's thought is his postulation of the primacy
of the will (practical knowledge) as the basis for his world-view. As a corollary he emphasizes aesthetics the
contemplation of Platonic Ideas in works of art as an activity of
non-willing; and it is this which underpins his ethic of resignation. Also of special interest is his view of
appearance as akin to the 'Veil of Maya' (illusion) of the Indian
Upanishads. As might be expected there
are a number of difficulties with his system.
(1) The individual disappears into the one Will, in
that conceptualization can supply only universals, while awareness of will in striving
is only 'immediate' knowledge, devoid of individual content.
(2) This leads to the problem of how the
individual will might be supposed to be free in the universal Will. Schopenhauer says that we have limited
freedom in so far as there is absence of constraint on us in the phenomenal
(3) The Platonic Ideas neither belong to the
phenomenal world nor are they intuitions of or by the will; their introduction
would therefore seem to be inconsistent with his main thesis. Furthermore, whether such Ideas are the
objects of contemplation in works of art is debatable within the context of
(4) It is questionable whether Schopenhauer deals
satisfactorily with the paradox of an individual will (for which striving is a
necessary activity) which can renounce and obtain release through asceticism,
if even what happens to us is a consequence of the universal Will.
But despite Schopenhauer's seemingly
pessimistic conclusions, his 'voluntarism' has been influential in aesthetics
and in psychology. His emphasis on
action and agency have also be thought by some philosophers to offer a more
fruitful approach to problems in the philosophy of mind than current
materialist or neurobiologically based theories.
Schopenhauer: Ueber die
vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (1813) (On the
Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason); Die Welt als Wille
und Vorstellung (1818) The World as Will and Representation). There are English translations by E. F. J
Payne of both these; and there is an Everyman abridged edition of the latter
ed. D. Berman.
P. Gardiner, Schopenhauer.
C. Janaway, Schopenhauer.
J. Atwell, Schopenhauer
on the Character of the World: The
Metaphysics of the Will.
D. W. Hamlyn, Schopenhauer.
Janaway, Self and World in Schopenhauer's Philosophy.
K. Ameriks (ed.), The Cambridge
Companion to German Idealism.
C. Janaway (ed.), The
Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer.