Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Arthur Schopenhauer - Philosophy's great pessimist

Schopenhauer's Practical Philosophy

Schopenhauer thinks it would have been better if the world had never existed at all.
His particularly frosty view of relationships is conveyed by his fable comparing people to
 porcupines. He also has a dim view of sex and its effects on humanity.
 Sex is our driving force, yet sex and relationships offers nothing but sorrow.
However Schopenhauer does not think that that suicide is the logical answer to the human condition 
Instead he recommends two ways to alleviate the human condition: reducing your desires
and engaging in the arts
Asceticism, curbing your desires, is Schopenhauer’s first remedy. Since they are very likely to be thwarted, you should train yourself to desire as little as possible.
Contemplation of the sublime is also commended as a way of reducing the pernicious effects 
of the Will
Of all the arts, music is the most sublime. “Music is the answer to the mystery of life. It is the most profound of all the arts; it expresses the deepest thoughts of life and being; a simple language which nonetheless cannot be translated.” Schopenhauer further believes that art gives us direct knowledge of Plato’s Forms .

As far as his moral philosophy goes, Schopenhauer believes we should feel compassion for our
 fellow sufferers; his ethics of compassion, rather than virtue or happiness or duty,
 is again reminiscent of Eastern philosophy.
By no mean everyone agrees with the Schopenhauer Cure. Even if Schopenhauer is right about the centrality of craving, is asceticism, (the removal of desires) the best attitude. Schopenhauer greatly influenced Nietzsche who agrees with the idea that the Will was more powerful than the intellect, but disagrees with his ‘No-saying’ attitude to life

Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics

Schopenhauer believes that our inner knowledge of ourselves provides a pointer to the nature of ultimate reality. When you touch, see, smell, hear or taste anything your experience is indirect – and so Kant’s arguments about not knowing what ultimate reality is like hold good. But – and this is Schopenhauer’s key insight – when you raise your arm, you not only see your arm raise, at the same time you will it to raise. These are two ways of looking at the same thing – hence Schopenhauer’s theory is called a dual aspect theory.
In willing your arm to raise, you are part of ultimate reality. Since your idea of plurality operates only at the phenomenal level, the other side of the ‘veil of deception’ is all the same - it’s all Will or, more specifically, the Will to Live. So Schopenhauer thinks that the whole universe is really a life force, or energy. It should be emphasised that this ‘Will’ is unconscious.

Schopenhauer suggests that even your own Will is usually hidden from you. In his view that a large part of your motivation is hidden from you, Schopenhauer anticipates Freud. Schopenhauer’s is also philosophy’s great pessimist partly by temperament and experience and partly because of the implications of the all-encompassing nature of the competitive and destructive Will.
Schopenhauer’s idea that reality is ‘one’ and the human condition one of craving is reminiscent of certain Eastern philosophies. Schopenhauer however claimed to have developed these ideas independently (though he subsequently read Eastern philosophy and learnt from it). Rather surprisingly, perhaps, twentieth-century physics has borne out Schopenhauer in its finding that matter is instantiated energy and that a material object is a space filled with force


The Influence of Immanuel Kant
Faced with the twin problems of reconciling traditional religious beliefs with scientific advance, and understanding the foundations of knowledge, both rationalism and empiricism seemed to have failed. Kant tries to provide a synthesis of empiricism and rationalism. Originally a rationalist, Hume famously woke him from his dogmatic slumbers. Yet empiricism, according to Kant, is only partly right in asserting that knowledge depends on observation. Empiricism makes the mind far too passive. Turning around the empiricist idea that knowledge depends on observation, (his ‘Copernican revolution’ ) Kant argues that observation also depends on knowledge. We do not perceive the world as it is, but through our senses and conceptual framework. Experience furnishes the materials of our knowledge, whereas the mind arranges these materials in a form made necessary by its own nature.
We experience the world in a certain way, and Kant thinks that this could tell us much about the world. Kant asks “Given that we have the experience we do, what must be true about the world?” This transcendental argument searches for presuppositions and preconditions of what we know to be the case. Kant argues that space, time, causation and plurality were necessary features of our experience.
However – and here’s the sting - we experience only phenomena - what our senses and concepts reveal - not the thing in itself (the noumena). There could well be a ‘veil of deception’ between us and ultimate reality. Whereas Kant thinks that we can know nothing about the thing in itself, Schopenhauer disagreed. Schopenhauer thinks that in knowing that we will we have a direct line to what we really are. For Schopenhauer, the act of willing is our one instance where we have knowledge of ultimate reality, and that ultimate reality is what Schopenhauer calls ‘Will’.

The sayings of Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer on relationships


“One cold winter’s day a number of porcupines huddled together quite closely in order, through their mutual warmth, to prevent themselves from being frozen. But they soon felt the effects of their quills on one another, which made them move apart. Now, when the need for warmth once again brought them together, the drawback of the quills was repeated so they were tossed between two evils, until they discovered the proper distance from which they could best tolerate one another. Thus the needs for society, which springs from the emptiness and monotony of men’s lives, drives them together but their many unpleasant and repulsive qualities once more drive them apart”

Schopenhauer on time

“The greatest wisdom is to make the enjoyment of the present object the supreme object of life because that is the only reality, all else being the play of thought. But we could just as well call it our greatest folly because that which exists only for a moment and vanishes as a dream can never be worth a serious effort”

Schopenhauer on death

“When, at the end of their lives, most men look back they will find that they had lived throughout ad interim. They will be surprised to see that the very thing they allowed to slip by unappreciated and unenjoyed was just their life. And so a man, having been duped by hope, dances into the arms of death”

Schopenhauer on suffering

“Great sufferings render lesser ones quite incapable of being felt, and conversely, in the absence of great sufferings even the smallest vexations and annoyances torment us”

Schopenhauer on the meaning of life

“Ecstasy in the act of copulation. That is it! That is the true essence and core of all things, the goal and purpose of all existence.”
Schopenhauer: Life and Works
Schopenhauer was born in Danzig in 1788. His father called him Arthur, partly because it was such a universal name, and his schooling included a spell as a fifteen year old in Wimbledon. During this stay young Schopenhauer perfected his English, attended public executions, visited asylums and walked through the London slums. His parents’ marriage was not a happy one; his father was tough, dour, repressed, unyielding and proud and died in mysterious circumstances (probably suicide) when Arthur was 16. His mother, much younger and romantic, and lovely, imaginative, vivacious and flirtatious, became a liberated woman-about-town and successful writer but fell out so badly with Arthur that they did not meet during the last 25 years of her life. His relationship with is mother, plus his own gloomy temperament, are usually cited as reasons for Schopenhauer’s dislike of women and people in general, and indeed of his philosophical pessimism.
Schopenhauer managed to avoid continuing the family business, as his father had wished, but, with a large enough inheritance to obviate the need to work, decided to study. He studied philosophy, and soon became a great admirer of Kant. but considered Kant’s successors, like Hegel and Fichte, to be charlatans. Plato and Eastern philosophy, especially the Upanishads and Buddhism, were other influences on Kant..
Schopenhauer wrote The World as Will and Representation in 1818 and chose a career as a lecturer in Berlin in 1820. Outrageously, Schopenhauer chose to lecture in Berlin at the very same hour as the esteemed Hegel; no one came to Schopenhauer’s lectures and he abandoned his career.
From the age of 45 until his death 27 years later Schopenhauer lived alone (except for, in later years, with his poodle), in ’rooms’ in Frankfurt. He always followed the same routine; he rose at 7, had a bath but no breakfast, had a strong cup of coffee and sat down to write until noon, He practised the flute, had lunch, and then read until 4. At 4 o’clock, no matter the weather, he walked for two hours. At 6 o’clock he read The Times and in the evening attended the theatre or a concert, after which he had dinner and went to bed between 9 and 10.

Read On

Schopenhauer, A Essays and Aphorisms
Schopenhauer, A The World as Will and Representation

Magee. B The Great Philosophers

Magee. B Confessions of a Philosopher

Magee. B The Philosophy of Schopenhauer

Tanner, M Schopenhauer
Yalom, I The Schopenhauer Cure

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