If philosophy cannot guide our conduct, much less change behavior, then why should we bother read philosophy at all? Curiosity, perhaps? If philosophy can help guide conduct, then let’s look at conduct. At the bare minimum, our actions are the result of character, which is what we fundamentally will as motivation. Then it follows that a change in motives will result in a change in action. Then it is reasonable that philosophy can at least produce a change in the information we have about the world that is relevant to how we act.
Au contraire, says the arch-pessimist Schopenhauer. Reading philosophy cannot change our character. Why? because the judgment of our existence depends entirely on character, and reading philosophy has no effect on those fundamental issues of life. At best, philosophy can provide a superficial effect.
More concisely: Schopenhauer claims that nothing can change character, because it is both innate & immutable. Even if we managed to find counter-evidence to that assertion, that could never be the frozen worlds of philosophy.
Schopenhauer’s notion of character is inherited from Kant’s solution to the classic free will & determinism problem. Kant claimed that in the world of nature, Newtonian science reigns, that everything is causally determined. He called the principle of human behavior “laws of empirical character.” But this is not sufficient – because every embodied person, as well as any other natural object, is mere representation, and Kant also holds that there must be a ground of empirical character in the world of things in themselves. Kant calls this ground of empirical character “intelligible character.” Because we cannot know anything about reality in itself, we cannot know anything about this intelligible character, but Kant is willing to grant that it is at least possible that this intelligible ground of empirical character includes the free choices made by the real and intelligible self.
For Schopenhauer, this intelligible ground of empirical character is the single act of a fundamental choice. Even though the natural world of empirical objects are entirely beholden to causal laws, it is my choice that attached me to a particular empirical character, and makes it my character. Since causality only applies to empirical reality, then my life-defining and intelligible choice is uncaused & therefore free.
It looks like Schopenhauer glosses over Kant’s solution to the free will & determinism problem, but with one difference: Kant only thinks the intelligible choice is a possible solution, whereas Schopenhauer takes it as the truth of the problem.
There are three reasons this is not the case:
- The solution to the problem of free will & determinism debate is incoherent and cannot be a solution. If free choice or an act of will is taken as an event, and all events take place in time, then the idea of an intelligible choice, or the act of choice that takes place in the timeless domain of the Kantian thing in itself is completely incoherent. Whatsoever is incoherent cannot sustain as a solution.
- Although causation was taken as universal and absolutely necessary during the heyday of Newtonian science, in our post-modern times, quantum indeterminacy provides an escape hatch.
- Once Schopenhauer refers to the utterly unknowability of the thing in itself, then neither he nor anyone can know that the things in themselves ever truly contains acausal and atemporal events like acts of will.
Is Philosophy DOA (Dead On Arrival)?
The second premise in Schopenhauer’s argument to the futility of philosophy as a force of change is that book knowledge does not result in applicable knowledge. Reading books on moral instruction never turned anyone into a virtuous person. Studying Grey’s Anatomy won’t turn you into a talented artist.
More concisely: philosophy is not just a compilation of moral or normative ethics, for it also includes metaphysical doctrines. However, for Schopenhauer, virtue is based in metaphysics, then we need to ask whether anyone can become virtuous after reading his book The World as Will and Representation ?
Schopenhauer argues that there is no bridge between the heart and the mind because all theoretical knowledge acquired from books or instruction cannot motivate — their concepts are dead.
In my opinion… all philosophy is always theoretical, since it is essential always to maintain a purely contemplative attitude, whatever the immediate object of explanation; to inquire not to prescribe. (WWR I, p. 271)
It seems to me that Schopenhauer is trying to hoist his own petard here, by prescribing how philosophy should be done. No?
According to Schopenhauer, there is a neat and savage division between philosophy & art. Philosophy is a pure science of thought, a value-free body of knowledge that is completely independent of rhetoric, poetic and emotive knowledge. Thus, philosophy must consist of conceptual language that is ‘dead,’ or motive-less. Or it cannot be philosophy.
Unfortunately this is little more than a historical prejudice that is based on academic compartmentalization – despite Schopenhauer’s maverick status as a philosopher. There is no reason to consider both art and philosophy as purely exclusive spheres, utterly alien to one another. Philosophy can be both conceptual and motivational, as a matter of fact.
The earliest philosophers were themselves amazing poets. More recent thinkers like Heidegger poeticized the history of modern philosophy as the “forgetting of being.” Heidegger’s prose utilized both rational demonstration that the entire history of modernity has been trapped in a metaphysical blunder, and a poetic reminiscence that helped us to remember the magic & the mystery of the forgotten remainder.
Bottom line: It seems to me that it’s not the case that philosophy can be both conceptual and poetic — it always has been!