Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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Schopenhauer, one of the great prose-writers among German philosophers, worked outside the mainstream of academic philosophy. He wrote chiefly in the first half of the nineteenth century, publishing Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation), Volume 1 in 1818 and Volume 2 in 1844, but his ideas became widely known only in the half-century from 1850 onwards. The impact of Schopenhauer’s philosophy may be seen in the work of many artists of this period, most prominently Wagner, and in some of the themes of psychoanalysis. The philosopher most influenced by him was Nietzsche, who originally accepted but later opposed many of his ideas.
Schopenhauer considered himself a follower of Kant, and this influence shows in Schopenhauer’s defence of idealism and in many of his central concepts. However, he also departs radically from Kant. His dominant idea is that of the will: he claims that the whole world is will, a striving and mostly unconscious force with a multiplicity of manifestations. Schopenhauer advances this as a metaphysical account of the world as it is in itself, but believes it is also supported by empirical evidence. Humans, as part of the world, are fundamentally willing beings, their behaviour shaped by an unchosen will to life which manifests itself in all organisms. His account of the interplay between the will and the intellect has been seen as a prototype for later theories of the unconscious.
Schopenhauer is a pessimist: he believes that our nature as willing beings inevitably leads to suffering, and that a life containing suffering is worse than nonexistence. These doctrines, conveyed in a literary style which is often profound and moving, are among his most influential. Equally important are his views on ‘salvation’ from the human predicament, which he finds in the denial of the will, or the will’s turning against itself. Although his philosophy is atheist, Schopenhauer looks to several of the world religions for examples of asceticism and self-renunciation. His thought was partially influenced by Hinduism at an early stage, and he later found Buddhism sympathetic.
Aesthetic experience assumes great importance in Schopenhauer’s work. He suggests that it is a kind of will-less perception in which one suspends one’s attachments to objects in the world, attaining release from the torment of willing (desire and suffering), and understanding the nature of things more objectively. The artistic genius is the person abnormally gifted with the capacity for objective, will-free perception, who enables similar experiences in others. Here Schopenhauer adopts the Platonic notion of Ideas, which he conceives as eternally existing aspects of reality: the genius discerns these Ideas, and aesthetic experience in general may bring us to comprehend them. Music is given a special treatment: it directly manifests the nature of the will that underlies the whole world.
In ethics Schopenhauer makes thorough criticisms of Kant’s theory. He bases his own ethical views on the notion of compassion or sympathy, which he considers a relatively rare quality, since human beings, as organic, willing beings, are egoistic by nature. Nevertheless, compassion, whose worldview minimizes the distinctness of what are considered separate individuals, is the only true moral impulse for Schopenhauer.
Janaway, Christopher. Schopenhauer, Arthur (1788–1860), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC072-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/biographical/schopenhauer-arthur-1788-1860/v-1.
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