Thursday, March 10, 2016

Schopenhauer's behaviour

I have only one thing to add to the last post, on Schopenhauer, concerning his personal behaviour.  Wikipedia cites Betrand Russell's complaint that Schopenhauer did not at all live the life of asceticism that he extolled.  Schopenahuer himself provided an anticipatory response, also cited in the article, "In general, it is a strange demand on a moralist that he should commend no other virtue than that which he himself possesses. To repeat abstractly, universally, and distinctly in concepts the whole inner nature of the world, and thus to deposit it as a reflected image in permanent concepts always ready for the faculty of reason, this and nothing else is philosophy."

While it is true that a person's philosophy does not depend ultimately on whether he himself follows what he teaches, it is nevertheless a relevant matter to consider.  If a person were to proclaim publicly that there can be no earthly happiness outside of complete chastity, and yet spend his evenings chatting up ladies at the bar and engaging in one-night stands, one would have cause to doubt the truth of his statements -- or at least whether he sincerely believed them.  To cite a somewhat later 19th century philosophy, Pragmatism, "belief is that on which one is prepared to act" (citing Wikipedia, again).  It is not necessary that a person who believes abstinence to be a virtue also be a great abstainer, but one would at least expect such a person to desire to abstain more, to attain more closely to his ideal.  Christians are notoriously bad at living up to their moral goals, but their whole religion presupposes their failure and expects them to try, fail, and ask forgiveness of God.  If Schopenhauer showed no interest in renouncing his own will, even as he proclaimed that happiness is only to be obtained in that fashion, then there is reason to be sceptical whether he really believed it.  (I have done no research into Schopenhauer's personal life, and therefore I leave it an open question whether he did or did not attempt to practice his own philosophy.  However, I think his defense quoted in the opening paragraph is extraordinarily shallow and unconvincing.  I would also add that his being a complete hyprocrite would not prove that his philosophy was wrong; however, considering what exceptional demands of renunciation it puts on individuals, and the ecstasy it promises to ascetics, I would certainly be inclined to doubt its truth if he himself had no interest in practicing what he preached.)

** (A week later:) I wanted to add a clarification that the situation would be quite different if Schopenhauer had said that self-denial was the morally correct thing to do, but acknowledged that it would be painful.  Anyone may be forgiven for failing to live up to standards that he acknowledges to require foregoing pleasure.  According to Schopenhauer, however, anyone who can see past the veil of illusion (maya) can see that all willing is self-defeating and ultimately painful.   Since he writes about it, presumably Schopenhauer himself is capable of seeing past the veil of illusion, at least sometimes, so what advantage can he gain by perpetuating a situation that he sees to be self-defeating?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


Schopenhauer has a reputation as being a little bit whack (to use the technical term), so I approached "The World as Will and Idea" with some trepidation.  It immediately put me at ease with its clear style.  After having just read "Thus Spake Zarathustra" and finding it little more than gibberish, it was refreshing to read an author who actually intended for his readers to understand him.  Admittedly, Schopenhauer does begin by saying that the only way to understand this massive work is to read it through twice, and he does jump right in with the arrogance by stating that he is going to give a real philosophy where all previous writers had only made attempts at it.  Still, I at least understood what he was saying, and that was more than I could say for Nietzsche or Hegel.

I thought "The World as Will and Idea" would be an abstract phrase representing something else, but Schopenhauer means it quite literally:  everything in the world is either will, or it is idea.  ("Representation" would be a better translation than "idea," and in fact Schopenhauer uses "idea" in a specific sense that he explains later in the book, so it is really misleading to use that translation.  However, I'm used to thinking about it that way, and it is a lot shorter to type "idea" than "representation," so there you are.)

He is in fact very indebted to Kant, as he acknowledges.  He makes several bows to Kant's intellectual achievement, even as he claims to go beyond Kant's conclusions and correct them on several important particulars.  The basis of the world as "idea" is Kant's division of things into phenomena, which we perceive, and the "thing in itself," which we cannot know because our perceptions are all conditioned by the mental structures of time, space, and causality.  I was grateful to have read the "Critique of Pure Reason," otherwise I would probably have been lost during the first section of the book, which is devoted to "the world as idea."

In the second section, Schopenhauer discusses "the world as will."  Now, anything we can perceive is only idea or representation, but there also exists our will, which we have without perceiving it.  This will is the "thing in itself" of what we are; it is, in a sense, much like the way Descartes discerns his own existence from the fact that he thinks.  At least we know that we think and act, therefore we must exist.  Extrapolating from this, Schopenhauer says that we ought to conclude that every "thing in itself" is of the same sort as ourselves, i.e. will.

This is the first part I had trouble accepting.  He is making an awfully big assumption in concluding that everything else must be like us, and his entire philosophy depends on this identity, so you would think he would devote more effort to its proof, or at least demonstration.  In fact, though, he can't really prove it or demonstrate it or anything more than suggest that it is logically a reasonable conclusion.  After all, he is talking about the "thing in itself" that is beyond perception and even causation, so any proof would have very little to stand on other than pure logic, and how can we know something that is not us through pure logic?

So what does he mean that the world is "will"?  He often seems to be using "will" as a stand-in for the laws of nature.  He describes how inanimate objects fulfill the "will" of nature, presumably by existing in just that form and no other.  Note that the object itself is not the will, but the forces behind the object, and the only way I could make sense of those forces is to think of them as natural laws.  He proceeds to show how animals are also the result of "will," i.e. forces, although of course they are not conscious of the will that drives them.  Humans are the highest and most perfect "objectification" of will because we are conscious of ourselves, but essentially we are also just part of the same will that drives everything.  You can see how the laws of nature appear as the most logical description of this "will."  He at no point attempts to interject a subject for the will behind everything -- no God or creator of any sort.  That is one thing that makes it questionable, in my opinion, to describe it as "will" rather than as physical laws.

It is important to Schopenhauer's philosophy, however, that "will" is not the same as physical laws, because he relates it to humans and our actions.  The will, he repeats, is "eternally free" because it exists outside of time and causality.  On the other hand, in its phenomenal existence as a human being, the will is determined by (physical) causation just as everything else is, so there is no such thing as free will in human action.  He makes an attempt to resolve this contradiction later, but not to my satisfaction.

One of the most striking things to me is the absolute distinction Schopenhauer makes between "will" and "idea."  The phenomenal existence of something -- what we see and touch -- is just "idea," and has no relation to the "will" behind it.  There is indeed no way of correlating these two concepts, which are entirely unrelated to the extent that we can't even say they are opposites.  I don't remember Kant's position on this precisely, but I left with the impression that, for Kant, the "thing in itself" is simply unknowable, that he did not make any presumptions about its relationship with the phenomenal object.  The reason I mention this is that Schopenhauer's insistence that the two are unrelated seemed like a hasty conclusion.  Sure, our perceptions are limited by our own understanding, but are we certain that the perceptible object has nothing to do with the thing in itself?  How could we be certain, in any case, knowing how limited our understanding is?  When I stub my toe on a rock, I know that the rock is, in many ways, not what it appears:  it is crystals composed of molecules composed of atoms composed of subatomic particles and so on down to quarks, strings, and who knows what else.  But I am inclined to think that the essence of the rock is closely related to the way I perceive it, at least on my scale.  It may appear different to someone a million times larger or a million times smaller than myself, but surely if we change the essence of the rock, we will change its appearance.  This reminded me of the late Scholastic distinction between "substance" and "accidents":  the bread of the Eucharist actually changes into the body of Christ, even though the accidents (appearance, texture, etc.) remain the same.  Schopenhauer seems to be advocating a similar position in which the essence of an object could change completely without any consequences in the phenomenal world, and while I acknowledge that as a possibility, I am much more inclined to think that substance and accidents are related.  I certainly wouldn't want to rule it out.

Up to this point, I could at least see Schopenhauer's point, even if I thought he was stretching it.  In the last two parts, however, he ventures into a fantasy land that isn't even consistent with the rest of his philosophy.  Part three is "the world as idea, second aspect."  One of the key points of this part is that, even though there is no relation between "idea" and "will," appearance and essence, sometimes it is possible for a person (a genius such as Schopenhauer, for instance) to "see" the thing-in-itself behind the appearance.  This can happen only if a person becomes completely detached from his own will and views the object from a completely neutral standpoint, without any regard to how it may benefit him.  What he doesn't explain, at all as far as I can tell, is how anyone can see from perception into essential nature when perception is all "idea" and essence is all "will."  He spent a lot of effort telling us that these were two unrelated concepts, even saying that an object requires a subject and that if the subject disappears, so does the object.  With such a viewpoint, how can he claim that we can "see" beyond perception to the thing-in-itself beyond (literally beyond, as in "unattainable from") appearance?  Moreover, he claims that the purpose of real art (not the shabby stuff) is to allow someone to see the essence of something more easily.  In other words, somehow we are able to see the real, non-phenomenal existence of something, not only by looking at it (which is already a contradiction), but by looking at a representation of it.  Suffice it to say that I find this unconvincing at best.  Any time a philosopher sets up an absolute barrier, only to allow himself and perhaps a few other enlightened types to transcend it, he loses his credibility with me.  As Hegel claims that we can only perceive the meaning of history after it has happened, but somehow he can tell that the Prussian state is the highest synthesis to that point, so Schopenhauer has created a dichotomy of appearance and essence and then backtracked to say that he himself can see across the unfathomable divide.

The last part is the second aspect of the world as will.  He makes the point in part two (first aspect of the world as will) that will is always in conflict.  Gravity conflicts with solidity, so things only fall as far as they can without running into a solid object.  I can't argue against his point, although it seems kind of trivial.  Any force is, by definition, doing something, and therefore is in "conflict" with whatever forces got things into the state they were in prior to that.  I don't find that particularly insightful.

Anyway, Schopenhauer applies this point in great depth to the human will to argue that we are doomed to unsatisfaction by the nature of our will.  Either we want something, in which case we are unhappy; or we have everything we want, in which case we are bored.  Most commonly, though, the completion of one desire only marks the beginning of another, and we are constantly striving after something.  He even argues that there is a certain quota of misery that we all have, such that one great anxiety can cause us to forget about many small ones, which then reappear in full force once the greater one is relieved.  This part was one of the more interesting; not entirely novel, but he makes some good points.

So what should we do?  Schopenhauer claims that there is no "right" except in contrast to "wrong," and "wrong" means thwarting the will of someone else.  This creates so many problems that it is obvious that Schopenhauer is stronger on ontology than ethics.  If there is no right, then why is there wrong?  Why shouldn't someone thwart someone else's will if acting on a will is not a right in itself?  But acting on a will seems anything other than a right, since according to Schopenhauer every will is doomed to be thwarted and unhappy.  Moreover, bringing back in the notion that we are all part of one common will, Schopenhauer says that the person who inflicts pain on someone else participates in that pain, both directly, through remorse, and indirectly, because he is somehow part of the same will as the person he attacks.  If this is the case, why shouldn't one person inflict pain on another?  He does as much damage to himself as to the other person.  All willing is pointless, Schopenhauer says, but to conflict with someone else's will is wrong.  By what standard?  Who has established that the will has a right to exist and to express itself?

Schopenhauer's ethics consists of not harming other people (I don't remember much discussion of animals, though he may have mentioned it).  But this is only a preliminary stage to recognizing that all willing is an endless cycle of frustration and pointlessless.  The truly enlightened person will try to cease willing altogether, by accepting all injuries without complaint, indulging his will as little as possible, and even torturing himself ("torture" was the word used in the translation, I don't know the original).  You might think that it would be just as well to commit suicide and extinguish the will altogether, but somehow suicide is itself an act of will and escaping the consequences of will.  (He says this even though he mentions, in praise, Hindu mystics who commit suicide by throwing themselves off a cliff, jumping in front of the juggernaut, or being buried alive.)  No, the ultimate act of negation of will is to die by starvation.  By refusing to indulge the will to eat, one shows a true triumph over the will.

An obvious question is, where does the desire to defeat the will come from?  We are will, in the sense that we are physical manifestations of will and we are by definition driven to act by will.  He frequently emphasizes that our "will" is the will to live:  to stay alive and to continue to exist through procreation.  Schopenhauer claims that somehow knowledge of the fruitlessness of willing causes, not a change in what one wills, but a complete reversal to a non-willing.  Frankly, this sounds like sophistry to me.  I think anyone would say that overcoming basic bodily needs requires an immense force of will; indeed, Schopenhauer admits that ascetics are constantly faced with the revival of their will and have to overcome it repeatedly.  Maybe it's possible to view this as expunging oneself of will, but I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than an act of will -- an act that can have no source in Schopenhauer's metaphysics.

Obviously, "The World as Will and Idea" left me unsatisfied, the moreso as it started out promisingly and got ever more withdrawn from reason.  Schopenhauer thinks that he has made a fundamental advance on Kant by labelling the thing-in-itself as "will," but I think he has only achieved a feat of verbal prestidigitation.  His whole philosophy rests on the identity of everything with a single pervasive will, but he has nothing that I can see to base this on.  The book is full of interesting insights, but it is also full of Schopenhauer coming up with fanciful reasons for things, such as when he says that we cry because we recognize the sadness of other people in ourselves.  I can maybe believe that some people cry for this reason, maybe that Schopenhauer himself had this experience and recognized it, but had he never seen a baby cry?  Surely most human crying is not nearly so self-reflective as he makes it out to be.  Similarly, he uses the experience of remorse as evidence that we are all part of a single will, without asking if there are people who feel no remorse, or people who feel remorse without actually having done anything wrong.  These feeble ventures into psychology to justify his philosophy are most unconvincing to me.

Even if Schopenhauer were perfectly coherent, and I don't see how he can be considered that, I would still find his conclusions distasteful.  I admire ascetics for their self-control, but I do not find the ascetic life the height of virtue.  There is something about denying oneself pleasures that seems to concede entirely too much significance to worldly things.  I am reminded of Ambrose Bierce's definition of an abstainer as "a weak person, who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure."  I'm not saying that ascetics are weak, of course, merely that their intense focus on physical pleasures seems rather misplaced.  I prefer the model of Schopenhauer's contemporary (and fellow Hegel detractor) Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote about a person who can enjoy living in the world because he has renounced it.  (I forget what work that was from, I will have to find it and make a note.  Possibly Fear and Trembling.)  Any philosophy that tells me that the best thing I can do is to die -- not even to undertake the act of dying, but simply to allow myself to die through inaction -- seems intuitively wrong, I am tempted to say evil.  I don't think this is what God intended for us; and if you don't believe in God, I can't see why your aim in life would ever be to let yourself pass away through neglect.

Nevertheless, I won't suggest that reading this very long book was completely useless.  There are many interesting points, such as when he describes architecture as a struggle between rigidity and gravity.  And my personal favourite is the following in which he expands on Spinoza in a most interesting way:  "Spinoza (Epist. 62) says that if a stone which has been projected through the air had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own will. I add to this only that the stone would be right."