“Philosophy has so long been sought in vain because it was sought by way of the sciences instead of by way of the arts.” Schopenhauer is the first thinker to grant art the highest philosophical rank and constructs an anesthetic metaphysics in book III. Contra Kant, Schopenhauer claimed that the aesthetic experience, instead of revealing to us our moral vocations, is the vehicle for escaping the conditions of the Will.
Like the message of the great modern religions, perfect resignation is the “giving up of all willing, turning back, abolition of the will and with it of the whole inner being of this world and hence salvation.” (WWR p. 233, § 48 ) The function of the arts is the “expression and representation” of the Platonic Ideas. The more efficient the Will manifests or “objectifies” itself in an Idea, the more valuable it becomes; since the art form reveals the nature of reality – a standard Neoplatonist claim that art represents Ideas by virtue of representing the imagined essential as opposed to the imitation of the inessential material.
In this Book Schopenhauer’s aesthetics is the attempt to subsume a modified form of Platonism within the esoteric version of Kantian metaphysics outlined in the first two Books. Briefly, the genuine aesthetic experience is the precursor of the apprehension of metaphysical truth. Philosophy consists of articulating in abstracta inasmuch what the artist does in concreta. Thus, philosophy is the articulation of concepts. Both the arts and philosophy are engaged in the same task, and both “work at bottom towards the solution of the problem of existence.” (WWR II p. 406) Schopenhauer concedes that, given its “ineluctable generality of concepts,” philosophy can never provoke as well as art.
The third book opens with a further exposition of the Ideas as the definite grades of the objectification of the will, the original unchanging forms of all natural objects as well as the natural laws themselves. (WWR, § 30) Although the ideas are “present” in countless examples and instances, their relation to particular instances is that of an archetype to its copies. (WWR, § 30) All particular concrete individuals in space and time are nothing more than the Ideas filtered through the PSR. However, Schopenhauer maintains that while all the instances and aspects are beholden to the PSR – plurality and change – the Ideas are wholly independent of the PSR, and outside of knowledge, for they remain immutable. The only way for the Ideas to become an object of knowledge is through the destruction of the individuality of the knowing subject.
Schopenhauer admits that the Ideas of Plato and Kant’s thing-in-itself are not the same thing, for the former was merely “immediate” while the latter was the unobjectified will. The Idea “retains the first and most universal form…of the representation in general, that of being object for a subject.” (WWR § 32 p. 175) This characterization is the only form of knowledge, and so, it is “the most adequate objectivity possible for the will.” (WWR § 32 ibid)
Schopenhauer beautifully describes the relentlessness of the desires of the will, irrespective whether the person is pursuing pleasure or fleeing pain, for everyone is “constantly lying on the revolving wheel of Ixion, always drawing water in the sieve of the danaids, and is the eternally thirsting Tantalus.” (WWR § 37 p. 196) At least such relentlessness is not immutable, for there are breaks or momentary repose – and that is the moment of “pure contemplation, absorption in perception, being lost in the object, [and] forgetting all individuality.” (WWR § 37 p. 197)
The temporary suspension of the will takes place when a person contemplates the aesthetic as a pure, will-free subject of knowing, and in doing so, the pleasure of the beautiful is achieved. During the moment of aesthetic experience, the striving of the will slows down, and momentarily frees the subject from the constant suffering. In a nutshell, everyday life is restless torment and the aesthetic experience is the momentary respite. Schopenhauer didn’t stop here, for he also recognized that the aesthetic dimension of experience contained a means of perceiving beyond the veils of reality. With typical chutzpah, Schopenhauer goes beyond Kant’s conservative formulations with the assertion that art is cognitively superior to either empirical perception or the sciences, and that the intelligibility of art depends on the accuracy of metaphysical insights. However, it would be a mistake to read this section on aesthetic as a critique of the arts themselves, for Schopenhauer merely offered a conception of the value of art, and nothing else.
“Knowledge in general belongs to the objectification of the will at its higher grades.” (WWR § 33) Therefore, knowledge is subservient to the will, and consequently, representation serves as a means for the will. Schopenhauer shrewdly describes the exception to this restriction of knowledge when the subject disintegrates its individuality and pries knowledge loose from the will, and becomes a “pure, will-less subject of knowledge.” (WWR § 34) This anarchic knowledge is also independent from the constraints of the PSR. The ability of the mind to focus completely on the object of perception will lead to the dissolution of the individuality and devolve to a pure subject, a “timeless subject of knowledge,” (WWR § 34) or a “clear mirror of the object.” (Ibid, p. 178) Once the subject is free of the will, the object is no longer an individual thing but the Idea or the “immediate objectivity of the will.” (Ibid, p. 179) Since the perceiving individual is limited to knowing particular objects, for he knows objects in particular locations and at particular moments, from a series of cause and effect, then only the pure subject knowledge can know Ideas.
While the other fields of knowledge (science, history, mathematics) are beholden to the PSR, art is concerned with what exists independently of all relations, yet is truly essential and contains the actual content of phenomena, incorruptible, eternally true: the ideas, which are the immediate and adequate objectivity of the thing-in-itself, the will. (WWR, I, p. 184) Schopenhauer thinks art is a second type of knowledge, completely independent of all relations, and yet retain the essential and true content of the world. Basically, art is the work of the genius. This knowledge in art repeats the Ideas apprehended through pure contemplation, which is the “way of considering things independently of the PSR.” (WWR § 36, p. 185) While the PSR is rational, and completely essential for practical life, the method that wrenches free from such rationality is that of the genius, and is valid in art alone. (WWR, I, p. 185) Only the Genius has the ability of pure contemplation, which is being completely absorbed in the objects, sever his service to the will and be in a state of pure perception and eventually, the comprehension of the Idea. Once the individual will -the personal interests and goals – are dropped, the pure knowing subject emerges.
Even genius has its limits. If the genius is deficient in his grasp of the PSR (consequently the sciences and rationality) his individual genius will be severely curtailed. On the other hand, the genius’ singular brilliance is due to a “preponderance of knowledge from perception through the senses and the understanding over abstract knowledge.” (WWR § 36 p. 19) A Dionysos instead of an Apollo. The genius tends to grasp the Idea in things, which transcends the knowledge of relations or the connection of things, and see the one thing that represents its entire species adequately. “The individual object of [the genius’] contemplation… Appears in so strong a light that the remaining links of the chain …to which the belong, withdraw into obscurity.” (WWR § 36 p. 194) This ability exaggerates the genius’ perception to extremes, and consequently, his actions as well. Striking a moderate balance, the golden mean is utterly a foreign concept…
Schopenhauer often visited patients at the mental hospital, and his experiences resulted in amazingly prescient insights in psychology. One of them was a relationship between the genius and madness, not because of some defect of reason, but the “unusual energy of that whole phenomenon of the will.” (ibid) Schopenhauer also argues against the distinct demarcation between the sane and the insane, because the mad are not deprived of either of the faculties of reason or the understanding. Many of the insane Schopenhauer has visited in lunatic asylums possess great gifts, but he notes that the root of their maladies lie in the memory where a naturally continuous thread is shattered. Among the individual portions of their memories that took place, the gaps in the broken chain have been patched over by the imagination, which turn the fictional episodes into a “fixed mania” or momentary fancies. The more intense the insanity is, the worse off the memory. Here, Schopenhauer offers an explanation for why madness takes place: if the person’s suffering continues beyond the moment it took place and is located with his memory, and has become utterly unbearable, then nature in the throes of self-preservation destroys the thread of memory. This insight moves very close to those of early psychology, particularly that of Freud.
Only the genius has the capacity for utter and absolute objectivity. He can lose himself in his own perception by becoming the pure knowing subject, escape the ubiquitous will, and consequently, the knowledge that always accompanies the will. The utmost concern of the genius is the Ideas, the eternal forms of the world, of phenomena, and through perception the genius knows ideas, for they are not abstractions. Thus, the genius require a healthy amount of imagination to see beyond the immediate objects of perception – the representations – and toward the archetype. The genius uses art to communicate others the Idea he has apprehended, grasped, or glimpsed. On the other side of the spectrum is your Average Joe/Jane who lives in the present, pursuing a life of comfort and ease. S/He is incapable of directing his/her attention to anything other than what has immediate relations to his/her will, and is quick to satisfy him/herself with the abstraction of the object of perception.
Even the most obstinate, stubborn and insensitive philistine is capable of experiencing aesthetic pleasure. The subjective aspect of aesthetic pleasure is the experience of the sublime. If the observer moves from the knowledge of the relations that obey the will and towards aesthetic contemplation, then the observer experiences the feeling of beauty. This takes place only once the observer wrenches himself loose and free from serving the vicious desires of the will. The transition from the feeling of beautiful to the sublime involves the transcendence of all interests of the will.
The aesthetic presentation is a certain disinterested knowledge that takes place once the observer loses him/herself in the object and ceases to think or feel as, be an individual, and then the observed representation becomes a representation of an essence. However, the aesthetic representation differs from the perceptual representation, in the sense that establishes the centrality and moral purpose of aesthetics. Like Kant and Hegel, Schopenhauer claims art is the presentation of appearance as pure appearance, once art apprehends the Idea by muting the will.
The opposite of the sublime is the charm, where we are lured into the illusion that satisfaction in human life is possible by inducing a false sense of fulfillment. Charm, or attraction, is the excitement of the will in the form of satisfaction or fulfillment, whereas the sublime feeling emerges from the transformation of something unfavorable to the will into an object of pure contemplation. (WWR, I, p. 207) On the other hand, attraction, by stirring his will, prevents the beholder from pure contemplation that is necessary for the sublime.
Schopenhauer dismissed the realist’s prejudice that the artist’s ability to create art depends on how well s/he imitates nature, because that fails to explain how the artist can recognize what is beautiful. The only way the artist can create according to the standard of beauty is if he anticipates the beautiful prior to experience, before he begins the creation of art. This a priori anticipation is a different sort of knowledge than the forms of the PSR, where the universal forms of the phenomenon explains the “how” of appearances, which in turn develops the fields of mathematics and the sciences. The a priori knowledge of the artist, which “makes the beautiful possible,” is concerned with the content of phenomena, not the form – the what instead of the ‘how.’ By anticipating the beautiful, the artist recognizes the Idea of the particular thing, and “understands Nature’s half spoken words.” (WWR § 45, p. 222) If the artist merely created the objects of art solely based on his experience, then greats like Shakespeare invented all the characters in his play solely from his experience of people. Schopenhauer finds this too far-fetched and incredulous, and insists that the genius creates according to the anticipation of the beautiful, even though some experience is necessary.
For Schopenhauer, the function of art is to privide us the cognition of platonic ideas through the representation of individual phenomena that “instantiate” them, and the phenomenal world instantiating the platonic ideas composes of 4 distinguishable grades. At bottom is the lowest grade of the will’s objectification, the inorganic elements of nature – earth, water, air – which is what architecture does best. None of the other arts can equal architecture’s command of the natural elements – the open air, space, light, material, – and moreover, there are no symbolic representations. The second grade of the will’s objectification is flowers, trees, plant life, and painting is the appropriate medium. The third grade is animal life, where the two-dimensional nature of painting is insufficient, and sculpture can capture the physical body of the animal, especially its mass, weight, bulk, balance and poise.
The three-dimensional sculpture cannot truly represent human life – the feelings, emotions, characters and relationships require a fourth dimension – time – and all these attributes may be captured in a lyric poem, but the full scale panorama of human life is best expressed in drama, which itself can incorporate poetry. The great tragedies of ancient Greece and the plays of Shakespeare are excellent examples. “Human beauty is an objective expression that denotes the will’s most complete objectification at the highest grade… namely the idea of man in general.” (WWR, § 45, p 221) Nothing else inspires the purely aesthetic contemplation as fast, and as directly as the image of the most beautiful human being.
The Idea that the great works in poetry expresses is the “man in the connected series of his efforts and actions.” (WWR, I p. 224) Through poetry, the will expresses itself most clearly of all the representational arts. The summit of poetic art is tragedy, because it describes the most important aspect of life – the terrible side of life – much better than anything else, and ever beautifully. Tragedy encapsulates “the unspeakable pain, the wretchedness and misery of mankind, the triumph of wickedness, the scornful mastery of chance and the irretrievable fall of the just and innocent…” (WWR, §51, p 253)
At the highest peak of aesthetics Schopenhauer places music, for it does not copy or repeat anything of phenomena – it actually surpasses the world of perception itself – nor does it copy the Ideas themselves, for it is the copy of the will itself. Therefore, music is much more potent than all the other arts. True music is purely abstract, and doesn’t represent anything in the world of phenomena, and therefore it doesn’t present the cognition of the Platonic ideas through concrete particulars. Music bypasses both the Platonic ideas and representations of phenomena altogether. If all this is the case, then movies are at least at the level of drama, for they are frozen plays, ideally captured and maximized by the most appropriate camera angle, and augmented by special effects where needed, etc.
Since music does not express phenomena, for it is the inner nature of every phenomenon, the will itself, then it never express a particular emotion or passion – a specific sorrow or joy – instead those emotions themselves, their essence are expressed in music. Because music expresses the quintessence of existence, as opposed to the individual and particular instances, it is the universal and homogeneous language, as well as the oldest, and intelligible to all people, yet impossible to translate into another medium. Schopenhauer credits melody as the disclosure of all the deepest secrets of human willing and feeling, and the invention of such is the work of genius.