Philosophy Can [Not] Change You

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? :lol:

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! 

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...a philosophisticator who utters heresies, thinks theothanatologically and draws like Kirby on steroids.

2 thoughts on “Philosophy Can [Not] Change You”

  1. (1) 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.

    You do not accept the intelligible/empirical solution to the free will / determinism problem and your understanding of Kant and Schopenhauer is = or > mine. However, you also seem to say that Schopenhauer believes philosophy cannot change our character because it cannot motivate us. This seems to misrepresent Schopenhauer’s thought and your own understanding of Schopenhauer:

    “Motives, however, can influence character through knowledge, and that is how a person’s manner can change while his character remains the same. Motives can influence the will, alter its direction, but not change the will. Therefore, pace Seneca, willing cannot be taught, and always remains inscrutable. Motives themselves are concepts, abstract representations of reason, and through the conflict of several motives, the strongest emerges and determines the will with necessity.”

    Character Motive = Action, is my understanding of Schopenhauer’s teaching, i.e. motives do not change character, but the influence they bring changes our behavior; you seem to say that no influence is possible since our character does not change, in the recent blog post. I do believe that philosophy cannot teach morality/virtue in the sense that concepts do not change our being/essence (esse). So, in modern speech, people are guided by the acts of those that they value more than others; the operari is affected by motives, the esse is fixed in time/phenomenal experience. The phenomenal conscious motives “direct” our transcendental choice through the ephemeral world of representation. I think you should treat this linkage in greater depth. You say:

    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.


    It seems to me that Schopenhauer is trying to hoist his own petard here, by prescribing how philosophy should be done. No?

    But Schopenhauer is arguing that prescriptive philosophy/ethics has no effect on the character of particular persons, which I take to be an incredibly insightful and true description of human nature. Schopenhauer is admitting that no person will become better or worse, morally, for reading his work, which is quite the opposite of hoisting his own petard. When Schopenhauer writes about why he writes (why the genius writes according to Schopenhauer), he does not give a very clear reason at all (an instinct of a unique sort):

    “The motive which moves genius to productivity is, on the other hand, less easy to determine (compared to the motive which moves talent, i.e. money and fame). It isn’t money, for genius seldom gets any. It isn’t fame: fame is too uncertain and, more closely considered, of too little worth. Nor is it strictly for its own pleasure, for the great exertion involved almost outweighs the pleasure. It is rather an instinct of a unique sort by virtue of which the individual possessed of genius is impelled to express what he has seen and felt in enduring works without being conscious of any further motivation. It takes place, by and large, with the same sort of necessity that a tree brings forth fruit, and demands of the world no more than a soil on which the individual can flourish. More closely considered, it is as if in such an individual the will to live, as the spirit of the human species, had become conscious of having, by a rare accident, attained for a brief span of time to a greater clarity of intellect, and now endeavors to acquire the products of this clear thought and vision for the whole species, which indeed is the intrinsic being of the individual, so that their light may continue to illumine the darkness and stupor of the ordinary human consciousness. It is from this that there arises that instinct which impels genius to labor in solitude to complete its work without regard for reward, applause or sympathy, but neglectful rather even of its own well-being. To make its work, as a sacred trust and the true fruit of its existence, the property of mankind, laying it down for a posterity better able to appreciate it: this becomes for genius a goal more important than any other, a goal for which it wears the crown of thorns that shall one day blossom into a laurel wreath. Its striving to complete and safeguard its work is just as resolute as that of the insect to safeguard its eggs and provide for the brood it will never live to see: it deposits its eggs where it knows they will find life and nourishment, and dies contented”.

    If Schopenhauer was hoisting his own petard, wouldn’t he try to demonstrate a rational prescriptive ethics of compassion? Schopenhauer believed the ultimate significance of life was moral, and he knowingly failed his own standard, by a vast breadth. Thinkers as great as Kierkegaard gleefully claimed “Schopenhauer is not who he thinks he is” (paraphrase) in an attempt to prove that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics was wrong because Schopenhauer didn’t become an ascetic/saint. Nietzsche did the same from the other way round, e.g. Schopenhauer negates God, and the world, but preserves morality; is this a pessimist? (paraphrase again, sorry). Critics love to talk about Schopenhauer’s arrogance/pride, but I believe he humbly recognized his own moral imperfection, his distance from his own conception of salvation, his unbecoming attachment to life & lack of philosophical equanimity. His expression that the great sculptor need not be beautiful, nor the philosopher be a saint, seems to capture his sense of self-condemnation. Almost every philosopher attempts to portray himself as living up to the requirements of his own ethical knowledge, Schopenhauer wasn’t even in the ballpark for his own standards.

    With regard to humanity, what do you make of the fact that almost nobody philosophizes, that the very idea of a person being in dead earnest about philosophy occurs to no one? (Schopenhauer paraphrase again, sorry) Doesn’t it seem as though what a person is always lies underneath what they believe? Rational arguments do not change what we believe about the meaning of life (they are all tautologies anyway, right?); everyone searches their feelings in light of arguments/experience to determine their ultimate disposition. Schopenhauer thinks that direct/intuitive understanding is the source of innate moral disposition which we graft rational dogma upon. This explains why asceticism is practiced very similarly (in terms of self-denial) in many (all?) world religions despite disparate dogmatic commitments. I think Schopenhauer is right that no philosophy/religion changes our esse and that we are fundamentally evil because the justification of the world’s existence / the problem of evil, seems to be the only real problem of existence, but almost nobody gives a damn about the suffering inherent in life and its implications. Instead, the majority justifies egoism, and two minorities pursue (1) the well-being of all and (2) the woe of all, with an infinite spectrum in between.

    You claim that 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.

    Yet you praise Schopenhauer for recognition of the primacy of the incoherent: Contra the dogma of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer realized that reason is not the basic essence of man.

    Moreover, the incoherent is simply a fact of all attempts at complete explanation. Empiricism hardly does better than transcendental idealism. Schopehauer does not believe he has proven that the intelligible character / empirical character theory is true, he simply speculates that metaphysically we are free transcendentally (or life has no moral significance) because empirically we are determined. None of Schopenhauer’s transcendental claims are put forth as certain truths; Schopenhauer is explicit that the “will to live” is only a best guess and not exhaustive of ultimate reality. All transcendental language is necessarily incoherent; however, and I do not agree that because a proposition is incoherent that it cannot sustain a solution. Your own suggestion is “establish your lucidity in the middle of what negates it”, which hardly seems coherent, but I found it deeply meaningful. I do not believe that quantum physics provides an “escape hatch” for allowing empirical/phenomenal freedom because it remains an unthinkable/incoherent principle of absolute uncertainty. To my mind, if moral empirical freedom was possible (freedom in the operari) then it would have to be thinkable / capable of coherent conceptualization as cause and effect. If anything, quantum physics seems to affirm an epistemic determinism trapped within ontological freedom/uncertainty. However, I would love to learn much more and am struggling to learn about the implications of quantum theory and agency.

  2. I appreciate this thought-out response and I hope my replies will be more satisfactory, without distorting Schopenhauer or disappointing you any further.

    Upon reviewing of the salient literature, I realize there are three aspects to Schopenhauer's conception of character: empirical, intelligible, and acquired character. All 3 are necessary in order to understand the moral nature of human agents. Empirical character is more or less the quality of a personal psychology (the objectifications of thing in itself in the world as representation, e.g., the individual's actions and behavior, and unchangeable). Intelligible character is the empirically disguised nature of Will as thing in itself, the blind striving that surpasses all individual willing subjects (known only through Kantian transcendental reasoning). And finally, acquired character is the changeable first person knowledge of an individual's better or worse qualities, of what she & others can or cannot expect of what we normally understand as moral character, and the virtues the individual has or lacks.

    However, while Schopenhauer does assert that moral character does not change, it does express itself differently under different circumstances over time.

    "Besides the intelligible & empirical characters, we have still to mention a third which is different from these two, namely the acquired character. We obtain this only in life, through contact with the world, and it is this we speak of when anyone is praised as a person who has character, or censured as one without character." (WWR 1 p. 303)

    Thus, as something malleable & subject to change over time, acquired character contributes to the illusion that willing moral agents can change themselves and transform themselves through experience, training, incentive, punishment, deliberation or resolve. But the acquired character of the moral agent is the superficial & ephemeral part of a subject. Since it changes the manner the underlying empirical & intelligible characters express themselves in a behavior sense, acquired character can never be the source of moral responsibility.

    But this brings me back to another potential weakness of Schopenhauer's philosophy with respect to the denial of the will. If understanding character means the will to live is the essence of all human beings, and individual character is the will to live in a certain way (a scholar, an artist, a criminal), then the denial of the will is not possible. Schopenhauer to his credit notes this apparent weakness or contradiction and claims that it is apparent:

    The denial of the will "does not proceed directly from the will but from a changed form of knowledge." As long "knowledge… follows the principle of sufficient reason, the power of motives is irresistible." However, in the ascetic state, "knowledge is withdrawn from the power of motives." In other words, entering the ascetic state is "not a change, but a… suppression of character." (WWR I, p. 403) The ascetic saint's character remains the same – for if he were to be presented with the same motives, he would act in the same way. But he is now no longer presented with motives.

    Schopenhauer also goes on to claim that the transformation of the entry into the ascetic state is not possible under one's own power. The change in knowledge is not something one can make happen, but only receive. It "comes, suddenly, as if flying in from without," and is the result of not works but an "effect of grace." (WWR I p. 404) Therefore, nobody can produce a radical change in their lives. If the transition to asceticism takes place, it happens to the ascetic, not through him.

    This distinction between the character change and the character suppression does technically save the immutability of character thesis, but at a cost. Schopenhauer has given up the entire deterministic structure of the empirical world he established in Book II, according to which human behavior is utterly subject to causal laws as is the behavior of natural objects and is in principle predictable. However, if we can for unaccountable reasons suddenly give up the "power of motives," and the laws governing their behavior be suspended in the cases of asceticism, then prediction is not possible.

    Schopenhauer more or less admits this that the denial of will is an exception, a "real contradiction" to the thesis of universal determinism. The lapse into asceticism is a "skyhook" that emerges from the noumenal into the phenomenal and interferes with the causal order of things. In other words, Schopenhauer's Kantian solution to the presuppositions of science with the facts of human existence is inadequate.

    I will respond to the rest later.

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