July 11, 2010

The World as Will and Idea

For my lit project, I read The World as Will and Idea by Schopenhauer.

The book is divided into four parts. In the first two, S describes his metaphysics, which separates the world into idea and will. For S, the distinction between the subject (the thinking person) and the object (the world the subject experiences), which philosophy has long maintained, is false; the object, says S, presupposes the subject and exists already as an idea which the subject comprehends. This argument becomes clearer as the book progresses.

S then describes the will, which we all have an intuitive understanding of; the will is, according to S, the being-in-itself of all things, humans, plants, and rocks alike. It is the fundamental force behind human actions and the laws of nature. It does not exist within the trappings of space, time, and causality, but rather exists outside these fundamental properties we perceptually experience. And since it exists beyond these trappings, it is unified, and as such the will we experience within ourselves is the same will which drives every other object we encounter.

Thus for S, there is the idea -- which is defined by space, time, and causality, and which we understand through our senses as the objective world -- and the will -- which is the metaphysical inner-nature of all these objects. Describing the world in this fashion, S compares his metaphysics to Plato’s; whereas Plato assigns particular objects (a chair, for instance) to generalized Ideas (that is to say, the particular chair is an expression of an Idea of chair, from which all chairs come to exist), S assigns particular ideas to a grade of the will. Properly speaking, the idea for S is the objectification of the will.

However brief and (undoubtedly) confusing this summary of S’s metaphysics may be, an understanding of S’s metaphysics is necessary before approaching the rest of his philosophy. S heavily reworks Kant, and his separating the world into two aspects is a twist of Kant’s insight into the difference between the phenomenal world (which we have access to) and the being-in-itself (which we do not have access to). The rest of S’s philosophy (which gets the more attention) is built on this.

Science, says S, is the study of the phenomenal idea defined by space, time, and causality; what, then, is the proper study of the will? S’s answer: art. S devotes the third section of his work to this topic and argues that in aesthetic contemplation (and rapture) we leave behind the will and enter into the world of idea. This argument is completed in the final section of the book --

The will, according to S, is forever striving, never satisfied. It is, as such, suffering. Midway through the final section, S gives a detailed exposition of the suffering of the human will (which I thought reminiscent of Lucretius) and lays out the portion of his philosophy which others have inevitably labeled “pessimistic.” S’s vision is bleak, but he is a transcendentalist: the striving of the will can be forgotten, even suppressed; we transcend the will through knowledge of the true nature of the universe (which happens to be S’s metaphysics). In art, we glimpse this truth and briefly forget the will as we contemplate pure objectivity (which art expresses). But this is not full understanding.

In the final section, S outlines his ethics. This is probably the most famous portion of his philosophy. He begins from the illusion people hold that they (as subjects) are separated from the objective world they experience; in this egoism, people recognize only their own wills, and in asserting their wills come to actively deny the wills of others. This person does wrong and borders on wickedness. Once, however, a person recognizes the truth -- that is, that his will is the same will which appears in others, and, consequently, that his suffering is tied to the suffering of other wills -- this person strives to become just by recognizing the equal rights of another’s will. Finally, a person comes to elevate the wills of others above his own and becomes willing to sacrifice his own will for the sake of others. This final person has escaped the sufferings of the will by suppressing his will entirely. For S, this is the ascetic, the saint.

Before reading this, I had heard a lot about Schopenhauer and his pessimism. Having read it, I would not call S a pessimist. He is greatly misrepresented. And though I found his discussions about art and ethics stimulating and fascinating, I think it is his metaphysics which is his important philosophical contribution. One cannot take his aesthetics or ethics without first swallowing his metaphysics. And his metaphysics is transcendental (re: not pessimistic).

S’s writing style is occasionally maddening. His sentences can get unruly. His paragraphs can continue on for pages. And yet he is surprisingly coherent; his clarity is sometimes startling. Though I never fully took to his philosophy, I at least took something from nearly everything he discussed and found my own philosophy becoming that much clearer through his words; I subscribe to none of his assertions yet feel his influence throughout my thoughts. This influence may not survive for long, but for now at least I feel this book has been an important step for my understanding of philosophy (as a subject). I plan to read more philosophy for my lit project in the near future.

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