On 4/8 and 4/19 we took two stabs at one of the biggie tomes of philosophical history, Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, covering first metaphysics, and then aesthetics (focusing to a good degree on music).
For Ep. #114, we read all of Book II (of Volume 1, which is really the book proper published in 1818, the other volumes having come out far after that, because he couldn’t leave well enough alone), which focuses on the ultimate metaphysical stuff of the universe according to Schopenhauer: will.
This episode will be out very soon (Monday), and the Aftershow for it will take place on Sunday, May 3 at 5pm Eastern time, featuring host Danny Lobell. Go sign up to attend!
What is will? Well, you already know one species of it, which is what it feels like to be you. For everything else we experience, we only get to see the outside, the appearance. Even if we break something open, or dissolve it chemically, or use a particle accelerator to really get in there, that’s all just part of the world of appearance for Schopenhauer. This, of course, he got from Kant, and you can hear all about how Schopenhauer modified Kant’s picture of how our minds create the world of experience by listening to our Episode 30 on his previous book On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
The difference in emphasis is that for Kant, yes, there’s a Thing-In-Itself lurking behind all appearances, and what we call reality and study through science is a matter of how this unknown raw material gets processed through our perceptual apparatus, where we apply categories of space, time, number, causality, etc. to it, but Kant wouldn’t want to say that this experienced world isn’t in some quite ultimate sense real on this account. Schopenhauer, following Eastern philosophy (recall our Buddhism episode), says that this world of phenomena is a veil of illusion, which gives rise to desire and suffering.
So what’s behind the veil? Well, again, you already know that in the case of yourself. You encounter your body as a thing in the world among things, as one more appearance in this veil, but you are also this body, and know it in a more intimate way, through a feeling of its wants, its striving, its pleasure, its pain, and especially through the feeling of you actually doing something: the subjective correlate of a movement of your body is an act of will.
Schopenhauer argues that it’s very unlikely that you’d be the only creature in the universe to have such an “inside” in addition to the visible outside. While you can’t use the ordinary tools of knowledge (e.g. scientific induction) to prove that there is will in the world beyond just you, it’s not something, Schopenhauer thinks, that any wise person is going to miss. Not only would I be obtuse in denying YOU and other people this inner will, but look around at all the striving, all the activity: animals running around acting on instinct, with they and plants growing more or less according to some predefined blueprint, even inorganic matter seemingly striving in ways characterized by Newton’s laws of motion, the law of gravity, the laws of electromagnetism, etc.
So even though this force that’s ultimately behind everything isn’t going to be exactly the same as your or my individual will (given that those beasts and plants and rocks can’t use concepts or in many cases even have representations), Schopenhauer wants us to call it Will, because he thinks that image evokes the ever-striving, conflicted character of existence, as all these forces battle each other.
What is Will and how does it exactly relate to what we see? Well, Schopenhauer thinks that since the mind (qua Kant) adds things like number, space, and time to create the world of experience, therefore the world BEFORE experience, the Thing-In-Itself, must NOT have any of those characteristics (note that this is not a conclusion that Kant thinks we can reach). The Will is a unity, outside space and time. Really (in a way that should sound familiar to listeners of our our Maimonides episode) there’s really nothing positive we can even say about Will itself.
The Will can’t cause phenomena, because causality is a relation within the realm of phenomena, not a relation linking phenomena to the Will. Instead, things of experience come about because the world is “objectified,” i.e. put in front of a subject and so made into an object. This means literally that before there was any being that could have representations, there was no “world,” in the sense of flowing space and time. Yet nonetheless, as soon as the first perceiving creature showed up, the whole infinite temporal series was in a sense created, flowing back and out in all directions indefinitely. If this sounds bizarre, well, cosmology always sounds bizarre when you’re talking about some unitary, non-temporal entity somehow “giving rise to” time and space itself, so this is not a problem unique to Schopenhauer, though S. embraces idealism a la Berkeley more directly and fervently than Kant ever did; and idealism is always embarrassed by the problem of what the world was like before any minds were around to perceive it.
There’s more to this “objectification” though: it has gradations. Inorganic matter is a lower form of objectification, asserting a blind striving predictably according to physical laws (note that the laws don’t cause the striving; they merely describe its patterns). Higher grades of objectification assert more apparent teleology: plants and animals grow according to their genetic blueprints, and with people, things get even more complex, because we can act on motives, which have to do with conceptual thought that abstracts from particular representations. Each person has his or her own character that gets acted out through the particular circumstances we meet up with. We are the most vivid objectification of the will, making the strife inherent in all creation explicit with our unceasing desires and the actions we take to fulfill them, which invariably run up against the strivings of other people and the natural forces that surround us, until inevitably entropy gets the better of us and death represents the victory of the lower forms of will over the momentary emergence of a particular higher organism.
Another way of thinking about this stratification, which Schopenhauer discusses in the first sections of Book 3, is by bringing in Platonic forms. What guides organisms in growing the way they do? Well, Schopenhauer didn’t have the notion of DNA at his disposal, nor Darwinian thinking in general, so he posited that it must be some underlying unity to animals or plants of a given kind. The telos towards which the thing grows is a function of the kind of will that underlies the thing, of the ultimate unity of all those individuals as pale reflections (shadows on the wall of the cave) of the Form of that thing. So Forms, for Schopenhauer, are just the Will barely objectified. Since the Form for dog and the Form for cat are different, they evidently have number (i.e. there are many different Forms), but the Form still exists outside space and time. Schopenhauer clarifies that on his view (whatever Plato might think, which is not really clear), there would be Forms only for natural objects, and not a Form for “chair” or other artifacts. Moreover, Schopenhauer thinks that as most vivid objectification of the will human beings are associated not only with the general Form of human (and for that matter, we’re also subject to gravity, etc., i.e. have all that in common with the lower levels of objectification of Will), but each of us has our own “intelligible character,” i.e. our own private Form. (Without buying into this as a metaphysical claim, Nietzsche could then take this as an inspirational call for us to “become ourselves.”)
I’ll wait for the sequel to this post to outline how Schopenhauer thinks that we can use art (and most directly music) to get in touch with these Forms, to understand ourselves truly as Will and so ironically to become less willful, to relax and become a Subject of Pure Knowing, to disown our own desires and really our own individuality in favor of ascetic renunciation of whole world of Representation and the lies it tells us.