In The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer spoke as a Teutonic philosopher, with mighty prose and thunderous proclamations from the lofty heights of classic Sophia and utterly uninfected by the pretentious delusions of grandeur that afflicted his German contemporaries. His distinctiveness among the early 19th century thinkers inspired Nietzsche to call him the “un-German to the point of genius,” (Beyond Good and Evil, 204) and Thomas Mann in turn called him the “most rational philosopher of the irrational.”
Schopenhauer possessed great literary and rhetorical skills in his presentation of a bewitching philosophical construct with perceptive metaphors and penetrating insights that have been echoed, reinterpreted and elaborated by subsequent thinkers and artists in the late 19th and 20th century, and indeed, far beyond the tiny circle of the professors of philosophy. In the rogue gallery of intellectuals and artists we find Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Freud, Richard Wagner, Mann, both Russian novelists Turgenev and Tolstoy, Proust, Zola, Mallarme and most of all, Borges. The World as Will and Representation contained a philosophy starkly different from what Schopenhauer dismissed as the “meaningless verbosity of the newer philosophy school.” (Collected Letters, Gessammelte Briefe, p. 29) Jargon-free writing made this masterpiece accessible to audiences outside of philosophy, and further cemented Schopenhauer’s reputation as a major visionary.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy describes a metaphysical portrait of reality, a “hermeneutics of existence” (Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, p. 214), and solves the problem of existence. The solution to the riddle of the world is the appropriate connection between the outer and the inner experiences – and for Schopenhauer it is representation and will. We should not mistake his philosophy as an alternative interpretation that competes with those of the natural sciences for it emphasizes the internal essence of the experiential life against the external world. The foundation of this metaphysics lies within the concrete, the physical, the tangible, because concepts, according to Schopenhauer, must have some foothold in the visual or the firm ground of reality wherein they were originally abstracted from. Otherwise, such concepts as the “absolute” or “the infinity of being” were little more than paper money: “With concepts of these sorts, the firm ground that supports the whole of our knowledge trembles as it were. Therefore philosophizing may occasionally and in case of necessity extend to such knowledge, but it must never begin with it.” (WWR II p.85) Much like David Hume, Schopenhauer baptizes meaning at the altar of direct perception.
Schopenhauer’s original contribution to philosophy is the assertion that will is more fundamental than thought in both man and nature. In a “single thought,” (WWR I xii) Schopenhauer put forth a holistic/unified/unitary and systematic metaphysics that hearken back to the old school philosophy of Spinoza and Leibniz. Rudolf Malter summed up this single thought: “the world is the self-knowledge of the will.” The world, according to the language of reason, history and morality, is not the true world. The true essence, the very substance of the world, of life itself is the will that roars underneath. This will is the ubiquitous instinct of the universe, consisting of forces, impulses and dark urges that are all dynamic yet purposeless, thus dispatching modes of explanation such as reason or logic to secondary status.
Besides not being in competition with the natural sciences, neither is the notion of the will merely a stopgap measure for possible holes in reasoning. “We are as little permitted to appeal to the objectification of the will, instead of giving a physical explanation, as to appeal to the creative power of God. For physics demands causes, but the will is never a cause.” (WWR, I p.140) However, in spite of such overwhelming odds, the transcendence of the will is possible, and is termed as the “negation of the will.” This is not to be confused with the transcendence of religion, the visions of God, but the very assumption of the attitude that “quiets” the imperatives of the will and goes beyond the default egoistic disposition of the individual.
Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a version of transcendental idealism, and provides the solution to the “riddle of the world” where the physical world is composed of phenomena that exist only for “the subject of knowledge.” After recognizing this, then we can explain the possibility of the knowledge of synthetic a priori truths. Man’s cognitive functions construct reality according to the four characteristics of the “principle of sufficient reason.” The World as Will and Representation demands a healthy acquaintance of Schopenhauer’s interpretation of the understanding, the principle of sufficient reason, (PSR hereafter) which was the subject of his dissertation work On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In the WWR, Schopenhauer makes many references to this work, but since he obstinately refuses to repeat himself, the reader is required to read that first, and use it as a lifeline before plunging in the depths of the WWR. The Fourfold is decidedly Kantian where it extends the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgment to the assertion that thought is already conditioned by cognizing objects to be determined by other and distinct objects in four different ways. Essentially, the PSR means that there are four classes of objects in the world, and they are all representations. “Real objects” make up the first class, concepts the second class, space and time for the third and the fourth consists of human action. Schopenhauer listed four species of “groundings:”
• A cause is the ground of its effect: the understanding always assumes the law of causality that allows for the perception of a physical world which seems to be the cause of our sensations
• A conclusion is grounded in a premise: reason, which consists of conceptual representations, secondary to representations of the understanding formed in and abstracted from perception, functions on the assumption that every judgment contains a justification
• A geometrical truth is determined by the nature of space: Sensibility functions with the principle that all things are located in a space of Euclidean geometry and in a time of arithmetic
• The ground of every action is its motive: motives determine all human actions.
Since Schopenhauer’s phenomenological method of philosophy bases abstraction in perception, then we should consider the PSR as the abstract expression of what is already evident in perception. Schopenhauer appears as a severe and rigorous skeptical empiricist in the Fourfold and presents a fully-fledged systematic idealism in the WWR. However, the PSR merely explains the “connections and combinations of phenomena, not the phenomena themselves.” If everything in the world is mere representation, then we are incapable of drawing inferences from phenomena towards the nature of the thing in itself. Consequently, any knowledge of the thing in itself must be non-inferential.
The book is divided into 5 sections: 4 “books” and an appendix on Kantian metaphysics. The first two “books” deals with the dual aspects of the world as representation, and then as will, in the language of epistemology and metaphysics, and the latter two books resolves the aesthetic and ethical consequences. Book I contains a systematic account of the world of objects, where objects are objects of experience for a representing subject and consequently, there is no object without a subject, nor subject without an object. Book II unravels the riddle of the world, which indicates the inadequacy of the cognitions of the relations between representations, and the inner nature is missing; hence, the riddle is the inner nature of things, and lies beyond the orderly relations among representations.
Schopenhauer opens with the simple, austere and bold declaration of the world as “my representation,” which actually means the world is given to ordinary perception, a world that consists of particular and concrete objects and is open for investigation. However, these objects are always representations for the subject, because the intellect of the subject conditions experience. That is why there is no such thing as an object without representations for a subject – which means a theory of independent, self-existing substance such as materialism is not only false but also already impossible from the get-go. Pure matter, independent of all attributes, may be conceivable, as an abstracta of an abstraction, but cannot be perceivable in experience. The statement ‘the world is my representation’ inaugurates transcendental philosophy where the representation always comprises both the subject and object.
The universal condition of everything that appears is the subject, a necessary presupposition, already presupposed by the forms of knowledge (space, time, etc). All knowledge of objects comes from phenomena, which is what appears for a subject. Therefore, there is no object in itself, an object existing independently of a subject. The subject’s body is already an object of knowledge, and the subject-as-body is a representation. Representation presupposes (as well as contains) both the subject and the object, “for the division into object and subject is the first, universal and essential form of the representation.” (WWR I, § 7) From the Upanishads, Schopenhauer develops the insight that the subject of knowledge is the unknown knower and is distinct from all objects of knowledge, which means it is also independent of the principle of sufficient reason.
In direct experience the subject perceives “representations,” and Schopenhauer describes two types: the intuitive (anschaulich) and the abstract kind; the former is perception, and the latter consists of concepts. The universal forms of perception are the properties of space and time, and are known a priori, which means they are always presupposed within every perception. Schopenhauer insists that time and space in themselves both belongs to the special class of representations that exist by themselves, and the PSR configure and entrench representations.
In this exposition, Schopenhauer describes a phenomenology where perceptions are consciousness of objects, and the concept of causation is the only essential aspect of perception because the judgment that grants an object to another as its cause is the act of thought that is phenomenologically distinct from the independent and antecedent perception of the object itself. Then, it comes as no surprise that Schopenhauer is not charitable to other views, such as Kant’s, where all judgments are derived from the logical functions of judgments (i.e., quantity, quality, relation) and all concepts of objects must include those categories.
The abstract representations, concepts, are derivative of intuitive representations because they are representations reflected, or “representations of representations.” Concepts are neither perceptive nor individual elements in space and time, but since they emerge from reflection, they are necessarily repetitions of the original world of perception, and invented by reason as a convenience. A concept is essentially related to another representation, which serves as its ground of knowledge and this series of relations ends with a concept that has its ground in the knowledge of perception. Therefore, all abstract knowledge depends on the world of perception as its ground of knowledge. Those concepts that are related to other concepts are abstracta, while concepts that are directly related to knowledge of perception are concreta. Relation, virtue, beginning are some examples of abstracta; and examples like man, stone, or horse are examples of concreta. These abstractions are provisional short cuts that allow human beings to reason and use language. It is with abstraction that people are capable of perceiving the future and the past, and consequently, being self-conscious of the decisions to be made and being deliberate in actions.
Since concepts are essentially distinct from intuitive representations, Schopenhauer does not think we can ever perceive or truly know anything evident of the essence of concepts. They remain at the discursive level, or at abstraction, and stunted by their nature as generalizations, which prevent them from being an ideal representation. Schopenhauer uses the metaphor of a mosaic to a painting to refer to the relationship between a concept and the experience it refers. Then, the acquirement of language grants the ability to conceive thoughts through abstractions. Yet language can never truly represent experience exhaustively, which leads to the following conjecture: experience consists of extra-linguistic character. This implies that rational knowledge itself cannot truly add to our knowledge because its function is to render existing knowledge in a new form, a form that communicates ideas within a community. Incidentally, since concepts are byproducts of reflection, they serve as obstacles in the creation of art – and Schopenhauer notes this in different artists: the singer, the composer, the painter, and the poet as well. At most, with concepts, one can polish his technique in art, and no more.
Continuing as an epistemologist, Schopenhauer distinguishes reason from the understanding, which is the faculty of the mind that produces and compares representations of perception. These representations are objects of perception, which contains and presupposes causality because they are mediated through our sense organs and intellect. The formal and categorical framework of the mind conditions representations in perception. All perceived objects already conform to and are conditioned by the human senses and conceptual apparatus. Then all representations necessarily imply an object and subject, for they are always “object-for-a-subject.” Each and every representation of perception presupposes the law of causality, or cause and effect, which is the sole function of the understanding. The modern reader is advised to interpret Schopenhauer’s term, the understanding, as brain function, or what the brain is for, and what it does in its every day activity as a biological organ.
Unlike the majority of most philosophers, Schopenhauer does not hold reason in high regard. Reason is the higher function that creates, stores, and utilizes the abstract concepts; making thinking possible by dealing with abstractions in reflection. These abstractions are concepts that have been made possible by the ability (with the aid of language) to formulate a generalization of many particular instances, or philosophically speaking, the mental activity of abstracting concepts from the representations of perception. These concepts are objects of reason, conceived and articulated via language. I.e., a car is a general representation devised to stand for many individual objects of perception, say, a Dodge Durango, but the concept of car always leave out many detailed elements of what is perceived or experienced in each particular case.
However, the perception-attuned function of the brain is primary, in both the evolution of the species and the development of the individual. As the ‘lower’ function of perception, the understanding in the brains of all animals operates involuntary and independent of consciousness. For instance, all the concentration in the world can never ever raise consciousness to the level of biological functions, such as hair growth, or lymph glands manufacturing blood corpuscles, and regulate them. These functions are automatic, autonomous, and wholly inaccessible. Therefore, reason, while considered “higher,” is actually secondary in the greater scheme of things.
The moon appearing larger at the horizon, the apparent motion of the beach while sailing past it, and others are some of the many examples of perception that turns out to be an illusion (the deception of the understanding). Yet the illusion remains entrenched, despite the most sophisticated appeal of reason, because the understanding is distinct from reason. Perception is immediate in two ways: instantaneousness (time) and direct contact (space). The immediacy of time seems, at the level of perception, not have taken any time at all, despite our scientific knowledge that there is an elaborate process that actually takes time, and for the immediacy of direct contact, there is no awareness of any perceptual apparatus being in the way between us and the object of perception. The senses are taken for granted. The understanding, because its knowledge already precedes reason, is utterly inaccessible to reason.
However, “if in the representation of perception illusion does at moments distort reality, then in the representation of the abstract error can reign for thousands of years, impose its iron yoke on whole nations, stifle the noblest impulses of mankind; through its slaves and dupes it can enchain even the man it cannot deceive.” (WWR, I § 8) Errors have a greater staying power than illusion, and the very possibility alone charges the history of abstract thought guilty of inertia.
Given that logic, or more precisely, the propositions of logic, does not contain empirical content, it cannot contribute to experience or perception. Consequently, knowledge, for Schopenhauer, already exists prior to demonstration. Schopenhauer further elaborates this argument by claiming that the value of a philosophy lies within its insights, not the logical validity of its argument, for these insights consists of judgments, perceptions, choices or formulations that make up the premises. Granted, philosophy contains arguments that articulate its own position in order to persuade others of its truth/cogency, so they are only a method, a mode of communication, the form, never to be confused as the actual substance.
Like a good Kantian, Schopenhauer avoids naive empiricism when he insists that perception is not only limited to the senses, but also actually includes the intellect, because the intellect already presupposes causality. Thus, all perception is already conditioned by the intellect through its presupposition of causality, which means all experience demonstrably depends on it. This is why, contra Hume, the knowledge of cause and effect does not come from experience, for perception already contains causality. If causality precedes experience, which includes knowledge, then that means both the subject and the object also precedes experience as necessary presuppositions. Otherwise, we have to deal with Hume’s unpleasant conclusions in the Treatise on Human Nature.
Schopenhauer describes the experience of empirical reality as representation and analyzable under the subject and object categories, but he does not think they are independent categories; they are dependent correlates. The old squabble between the advocates of realism and idealism overlook the fact that both doctrinaires begin with pure abstractions, or objects that transcend experience. The realists postulate a transcendent object independent of all attributes, whereas the idealists, counter with the transcendental subject wholly independent of all modes of apprehension. Both postulates are independent of experience, yet experience, or all representations already include causality. This leads Schopenhauer to reject both idealism and realism, (as well as any other loaded questions about the reality of the external world) for neither can maintain a relationship of the PSR between the subject and the object. Every attempt at explanation institutes a causal relationship between two entities, but if the entities are independent of experience and causality is already a necessary structural feature of experience, then both of these attempts at metaphysical explanations are impossible by default.
However, representation does not exhaust the world completely, for the world includes something else: the self is “doubly conscious” of the world, on the one hand, externally, as representation, and on the other, internally, as will. This immanent metaphysics is the consequence of inheriting Kantian baggage. Schopenhauer institutes a basic distinction in metaphysics between representation and the thing-in-itself, even though he does not employ Kant’s proofs and has arrived at the distinction by a different road.