There are many ways to dismiss Schopenhauer’s ontology by misunderstanding it. A correct view of his actual claims is not only defensible, but compelling; further it is remarkably consistent with modern science. I will begin showing this by illustrating the intellectual background forming the context of Schopenhauer’s work. Then I will discuss his two senses in which objects are representations. Finally I will consider how Schopenhauer’s views appear from a scientific perspective.
While the Kantian influence is obvious, Schopenhauer himself saw a wider set of influences: “I do not believe my doctrine could have come about before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant could cast their rays simultaneously into the mind of one man”.
Schopenhauer’s relationship with Kant is the most important and also the most complex. He saw Kant as the towering figure in philosophy, he frequently uses and accepts Kantian terminology, his major reason for despising Fichte, Schelling and Hegel is that he sees them as having betrayed the Kantian legacy; but most significantly, Schopenhauer is a transcendental idealist. Yet he frequently reaches very Kantian conclusions by alternate routes; a process necessitated for him by his belief that the Kantian proofs are often not valid: “Kant’s fourfold antinomy will be shown to be a groundless piece of jugglery”. Then again, his respect for Kant is shown by his devotion of a substantial appendix in WWR to Kantian criticism.
This may be perhaps rendered more comprehensible by remembering that Schopenhauer does not privilege different approaches to truth: “it is specially necessary to give up the prejudice that demonstrated truth has any superiority over truth known through perception or intuition”. There is perhaps an echo of the Eastern philosophy here, but again we should be careful to avoid traducing Schopenhauer by mischaracterising his claim as that we can ignore the proofs of Euclid if we perceive something different. He does not say this, but merely holds that logical demonstration reaches the truth in less satisfactory ways; we learn that x is the case without learning why. A drawing may show us a geometrical truth via perception far more directly and convincingly than a lengthy logical demonstration.
The first major opportunity to dismiss Schopenhauer arises in connection with the claims of transcendental idealism. Any crude characterisation of this as meaning that the world is in my head is radically implausible. Such a straw man would indeed be vulnerable to the infamous stone kicking and rebounding ‘refutation’ of Dr Johnson, who was responding to Berkeley. But experience is not being questioned; on the contrary, it is being insisted upon.
Kant’s development of transcendental idealism divides the world into phenomenon and noumenon. We can perceive only the former; the latter for Kant are unknowable. While Schopenhauer deprecates Kant’s usage of these terms as incorrect Greek, he accepts the result. Preconditions for experience and knowledge are the categories, including the notions of time, space and causality. We apply these to our sense data in order to understand them, to make them coherent and to make knowledge of the world possible. Therefore, our knowledge is only of the phenomenal world.
Yet Kant perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the implications of his pioneering work fully. He placed causation firmly in the phenomenal realm, and yet allowed the entities in the noumenal realm some role in causing our individual perceptions. Schopenhauer has no time for this: in his terms: “The principle of sufficient reason explains connections and combinations of phenomena, not the phenomena themselves”. This limits the application of the principle, which holds that “Nothing is without a reason for its being” in the formulation discussed by Schopenhauer. The principle can require that phenomena be appropriately related to one another causally, but can say nothing of the things-in-themselves or of the causation of the existence of the phenomena.
Objects exist entirely in the phenomenal realm. They are not things-in-themselves and cannot be because we can know the former and not the latter. Thus we see the first sense of Schopenhauer’s meaning in claiming that objects are representations. They are our representations only, the results of our application of space, time and causation to the world. Subject and object are inseparable – similarly the phenomenal and the noumenal are related as two sides of the same coin – and neither pair stand in causal relations to one another: “the demand for the existence of the object outside the representation of the subject, and also for a real being of the actual thing distinct from its action, has no meaning at all, and is a contradiction”.
Here we find a second echo of Eastern thought, in the suggestion that we cannot look for any illusory ‘real being’, and we would perhaps benefit from ceasing our strivings in this direction. This is also one of Schopenhauer’s central arguments for transcendental idealism, which asks what grounds we have for postulating a ‘second world’ behind the one we perceive, and notes that such a further postulation is both ineffective and dramatically inefficient.
A further argument of Schopenhauer’s for objects being representations can appear so powerful as to almost be analytic. “Every object always and eternally presupposes a subject, and thus remains representation.” This needs to be combined with the dismissal of the idea that the object is in any way like what it represents. We know that no objects are coloured; they merely have surface properties that preferentially absorb and scatter light of different wavelengths. This realisation is a potent confirmation that we are mistaken if we think that the world is in any way ‘what you see is what you get’. It must be true that representation is involved if the properties the subject perceives ‘in relation to’ an object is not the same as the ‘real properties’ of the object.
Schopenhauer goes further: “And yet the existence of the whole world remains for ever dependent on that first eye that opened”. We must again note that the highly modulated nature of the prima facie implausible claim that nothing existed before the first human, animal or insect eye evolved to survey the scene. Schopenhauer means that the world as representation perforce awaited that event; there remains the world as will, now apparent to us in the form of an incomprehensibly long and vast history of silently wheeling galaxies. We may not know it, and we may not ask questions about its origin in time or its pre-existence of life, for it stands outside of the phenomenal framework of space and time.
And again, if objects are not representations, then from whence issues their significance? They would float past us like so many images appearing briefly to a subject itself as insubstantial as a “winged cherub without a body”. Yet the importance we attach to the pictures and our interaction with them belies this.
Further, Schopenhauer notes the frequency with which identical expressions of the will appear in objects. Crystals of a certain type grow identically at all times and places, providing the relevant conditions are the same. The laws of magnetism do not alter their behaviour in relation to iron filings attracted to a magnet, providing again the same caveat. “The infallibility of the laws of nature contains something astonishing, indeed at time almost terrible, when we start from knowledge of the individual thing”. How could such objects, events and processes be made plausible if not representations of a single underlying principle?
In the second book of WWR, Schopenhauer turns to the non-representational aspect of the world, which in Kant’s terminology would be the noumenal. He notes that there is one object – one’s own body – which one knows under both aspects. If I move my hand, I can observe my hand as representation. But I also have internal experience in that case, which is denied to me in the case of other persons viewed as objects or representations, or any other objects at all. For this reason, Schopenhauer identifies the second aspect of the world as the will.
This terminology represents a second major opportunity to dismiss Schopenhauer, for he is claiming that the will is the organising principle of all objects, not just persons. We need to be very careful to note that he is using an expanded definition of the term. He is not saying that inanimate objects have motivations: “if I say that the force which attracts a stone to the earth is of its nature, in itself, and apart from all representation, will, then no one will attach to this proposition the absurd meaning that the stone moves itself according to a known motive”. So we are to understand this term as more akin to energy or a force of nature, that expresses itself in all objects as representations, that results in the “endless striving” of “the will’s objectivity”. This is justified because “if we refer this concept of force to that of will, we have in fact referred something more unknown to something infinitely better known”.
Schopenhauer identifies objects by his principium individuationis: this means that separate objects occupy discrete portions of space-time. So, since the noumenal is beyond time and space it is therefore one and undifferentiable; plurality cannot apply to it. This is why the Kantian term things-in-themselves is inappropriate: the noumenon or the will has unity. Here is the third suggestion of Eastern influences.
The influence of Plato on Schopenhauer derives from his identification of the will with the Forms: “these grades of objectivation of the will are nothing but Plato’s Ideas”. This has some superficial appeal at least, for the Forms are the unreachable perfect ideals of various qualities such as Justice and the Good. Objects in the world are imperfect representations of these noumenal qualities. People are trapped in the cave of Plato’s Republic , where they mistake the phenomenal representations that are the shadows of a fire for the Forms.
Finally we may consider science. Prima facie, one might imagine that no field of endeavour could be more hostile to both Eastern thought and Schopenhauer’s suggestion that objects are representations, or represent the phenomenal extrusion of will or force or energy. Surely physics shows that real objects back our perceptions.
Yet this is just what it does not do. We are told in excellent and useful detail what an electron will do under various circumstances; this does not address what it is. Physicists indeed do not attempt this: they do not address the question of what it is beyond what it does. They would regard any attempt to do so as mysticism. The regularities that physicists observe, and the high pragmatic value of the theories they construct using the idea of an electron, are consistent with the suggestion that what we observe when we measure the properties of an electron is just how it behaves phenomenally.
Indeed, wave-particle duality, under which electrons and other subatomic particles behave as waves or as particles depending on what experimental mode is used, does not increase our confidence that we know there is something material there. As Magee points out, Schopenhauer, Kant and physics all endorse the view that “bodies are spaces filled with force”. There is even the possibility posited by physicists as serious as Richard Feynman in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that there is only one electron ; this underlying unity would surely appeal to Schopenhauer and is suggestive of the unity of the will.
Another idea associated with Feynman and widely accepted today, is that an electron moving forward in time is the same as its antiparticle, the positron, moving backwards in time. This is counter-intuitive to say the least, but can also be seen as suggesting that time is more related to the subject’s frame of reference and less related to the fundamental nature of the electron/positron.
Similarly, we see in post-Darwinian biology a highly Schopenhauerian view emerging. Organising principles are expressed through the behaviour of animals and we see evidence for the action of natural selection – though Schopenhauer might add that the most convincing proof of natural selection is our perception of the better or stronger animals destroying the weaker, rather than a lengthy discussion on changes in fossils from different dates. And how could it be otherwise?
We may illustrate this by considering a rather strange criticism of Dawkins by Midgley. Dawkins famously though ambiguously favours the idea of The Selfish Gene. Midgley retorts: “Genes cannot be selfish or unselfish, any more than atoms can be jealous” which misses the point in an illuminating way.
Dawkins does not mean that genes have personalities. He has two other meanings. First, genes can make animals and humans act selfishly. Second, genes can operate as if they wish to perpetuate themselves. This is because those that are still here have so operated. What clearer parallel could be found to Schopenhauer’s view that those objects that are animals are representations of the will? They are certainly striving for some purpose which, given the general suffering of the world, does not appear to be for their own benefit or even fully grasped by higher animals including humans.
There is another scientific example introduced by Schopenhauer from the field of medicine. The example appears difficult for him, but can be seen to be a result of inadequate information available to him at the time. He writes of persons who apparently can commit suicide by holding their breath, naming Diogenes as having done this. “We might have here a striking example of the influence of abstract motives, i.e., of the superior force of really rational over mere animal willing.” This could be an adverse example for Schopenhauer as he seeks to extend his concept of objects being representations of the will to the inanimate, mentioning “the keen desire with which iron flies to the magnet”.
We now have a better understanding of breathing which excludes the possibility of suicide by hypoxia, because automatic breathing is a separate mechanism which does not involve the conscious part of the brain or a choice: “The brainstem, spinal cord, motor neurons and respiratory muscles work in a feedback system that controls automatic breathing.” This is more supportive of Schopenhauer’s case that all objects are manifestations of the will with inanimate matter, plants, animals and humans all merely different grades of that manifestation. Given that he had no acquaintance with the work of Darwin at the time he wrote, or with modern physics, or with this particular development in physiology, it is remarkable that his system holds up so well across disparate fields and extended periods.
A Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains vol. I, , ed. A Hubscher, Berg Publishers 1988-90, quoted in C Janaway, Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press 2002, p. 18
A Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, Trans. E Payne, Dover Publications Inc., 1969 (“WWR”), p. 30
A Schopenhauer, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, Open Court Publishing Co., 1974
Plato, The republic, ed. G Ferrari, Tr. T Griffith, Cambridge University Press, 2000
B Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 111
R Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976
M Midgley, Gene-Juggling, Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210 (Oct., 1979), pp. 439-458
WWR, p. 116
WWR, p. 118
L Guion, Respiratory Management of ALS, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, LLC, 2010