Sun of Schopenhauer, Part 1

‘Then you lead me to the safe cave, and show / Me there my self, and in my own breast / Secret, deep miracles reveal themselves.’

Faust, Goethe


Modern philosophy began with René Descartes. He was the first person in the Western tradition to question the given ‘objective’ world. He was a complete lunatic, who believed that thought1 and identity were the same thing, that the physical realm and the mental realm were distinct components and that animals were machines, but we have him to thank for turning our attentions inwards and for taking the first faltering steps on a path of ‘radical scepticism’ which, in the end, leads to a miraculous — and very real — destination.

For a century and a half after Descartes, philosophers swung between idealism — the belief that only2 the subjective mind is real — and realism — the belief that only3 the objective world is real. Most people today, most of the time, still swing between these two beliefs. They go by different names or, in the case of ‘the man on the street’, by no name at all, but idealism and realism roughly mark out the two poles of intellectual ignorance.4 They might still mark them out were it not for the appearance of Immanuel Kant who, in 1781, gave clumsy and confusing birth to the radical truth; transcendental idealism.

Kant was an intellectual genius who had very little understanding of anything beyond the intellect, and so it is very hard to see how he reached the epochal conclusion that he did; that while the intellect can know facts, it can never know the truth; that reality is always, ultimately, beyond the reach of mind. Kant argued that time and space must be functions of the mind, which is to say, that the intellect has inherent limits, which can never be overcome. Reading his books, or trying to,5 and looking over some of the events of his life, as well as the famous revisions he made to the second edition of his most famous work, suggests that he came to these conclusions despite himself, that he was unwilling to accept that the entire manifest universe is a creation of the mind.

But in any case, that is what he demonstrated. He pointed out that there is no way that the world out there can ‘migrate into my powers of representation’. That there is no way we could know anything of the world, as it exists in space and time, unless we already fundamentally knew space and time. There is, as Kant’s predecessors, Locke, Berkeley and Hume had said, just no conceivable way we could learn space and time (causality, matter, induction, etc, etc) from experience. Where Kant differed from these famous sceptics was in showing that we are born with a space-time faculty which can give us certain knowledge, but only of appearances, never of reality.

‘…if one eliminates from the empirical intuitions of bodies and their alterations (motion) everything empirical, that is, that which belongs to sensation, then space and time still remain, which are therefore pure intuitions that underlie a priori the empirical intuitions, and for that reason can never themselves be eliminated.’ (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics).

This means that you can ‘think away’ all the relative qualities of an object — its position, its colour, its shape, its state, etc. — because these are learnt, they come to us from acquired sensory experience; but you can never think away time and space — you can never perceive or conceive of [an object in] ‘no space’ or ‘no time’ — because you are born with this understanding ‘hardwired’ into perception and conception. Kant argued that our experience of space and time out there would be completely impossible unless we brought space and time to our experience and that there is no way to even imagine how it could be otherwise.

Prior to Kant, John Locke had shown that the ‘secondary qualities’ of objects — their colours, smells, temperature, etc — were created by the [mental] organs of sense, and therefore could not exist in any meaningful way ‘out there’, in the world. Of course they do somehow exist out there — it would be utterly absurd to say that the sky is in no sense blue — but not in a way we can actually grasp, because all we experience is what our mind — through our senses — presents to us. Again any other way of understanding the matter is impossible to imagine or meaningfully talk of.

Kant, following Berkeley, went on to demonstrate that ‘primary qualities’ are also mind-made; form, number, duration through time and so on do not really exist out there. Our minds create for us the seperateness of things, their location, their coming into existence and their passing away. Kant says that it is as absurd to assume that the appearance of the world resembles the world as it is to assume that ‘the sensation of red is similar to the property of cinnabar that excites this sensation in me.’

Again this does not mean that there is nothing in what we call a ‘table’ that makes it round, rather than square. Kant is not an idealist, or solipsist — he doesn’t believe that our minds literally make up the world from nothing (or God’s mind; as Berkeley did). Kant says there is a table out there, it is in some way square, but what that really means, what it really is, I can never directly experience. I can only know the table’s representation not the thing-in-itself.

Kant therefore made an entirely different distinction between objective and subjective to that which preceded and followed him. Today we all more or less agree with Descartes that the objective world is ‘out there’ and the subjective world is ‘in here’. For Kant they are both ‘in here’, both elements of the same subject — or, looked at another way, both objects to a consciousness which precedes them. The problem for Kant is what that consciousness is. As he had no experience of it, his reasoning about it failed. He knew it was there, but that’s all he did — know. This is why he said, quite rightly, that nothing can be abstractly known of ‘I’, the psyche (i.e. that psychology is bullshit), but then assumed that it was thereby existentially unknowable — that I could not be experienced. This of course makes excellent sense to academics, who have almost zero conscious experience, but to anyone actually alive, rather than merely living, is complete nonsense.

Kant’s hyper-abstraction also led to him rowing rapidly back from the marvellous discovery he had made, and in the second volume of his magnum opus, declaring, ludicrously, that the foundation for morality was conceptual. Everyone who has studied modern philosophy knows Kant’s conceptual formula for the good or the right; the fatuous bromide ‘act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law,’ aka ‘the categorical imperative.’ By pulling the idea of moral goodness out of thin air6 Kant effectively paved the way for a veritable landslide of bullshit, culminating in the ‘hollowest verbiage’ of the ‘insolent nonsense-scribbler’ Hegel, who did nothing but pull stupendous sounding guff out of his arse. If reality is the rational mind, then why not? This ‘reality’ Hegel falsely, and absurdly, called ‘consciousness’ or ‘spirit’ (geist), a quasi-mystical — yet entirely rational and knowable — principle which basically argued with itself throughout history until it proved that freedom is rationality, unmediated experience of reality is a lie and the verbally incommunicable is by its very nature untrue; oh, and the German police state is paradise.

That’s enough on Hegel’s nonsense though, which doesn’t deserve much serious consideration, and on Kant, whose most important arguments, those that can be understood without his ‘complicated clockwork,’ are better approached through the perceptive clarity of Arthur Schopenhauer.


Of all the offence Schopenhauer has given to numerous scholars, nothing has offended them more than the unfortunate fact that he does not resemble them.

Untimely Meditations, Friedrich Nietzsche

The paragraph above criticising Kant’s moral philosophy and Hegel’s chicanery came from the next — and some might say the last — Western philosopher to appear with anything meaningful to say in this tradition, and on this subject; the great Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer understood that although the mind cannot know the thing-in-itself, there was one ‘part’ of me which could; who I am. I myself am a thing-in-itself, and so if I can somehow penetrate my own experience, I can experience that which, to the subjective-objective mind, is forever out of reach. Kant had ruled this out; although he had speculated that I and the-thing-in-itself are the same7, he, being foremost a rational thinker, denied that either were accessible. He never recognised that which is aware of thoughts and sensory intuitions; he reasoned us to the threshold of the unspeakable, but was unable to cross over.

This led to one of the most basic flaws in Kant’s philosophy, first pointed out by a contemporary of Schopenhauer’s, Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg who said that although Kant demonstrated very convincingly that the world as we know it is brought to us by mind, that doesn’t mean that the objective world is not still identical to it. We know, as Kant and Schopenhauer did, that there is something in the mind’s mind which does correspond to the ‘thing-in-itself’, but how do we know that reality doesn’t entirely correspond to it, that reality isn’t entirely mind-knowable? We don’t.

We can put aside questions of coincidence (kind of astonishing that the mind should create a timespace reality in here that corresponded essentially to the one out there) because Trendelenburg’s objection can never be rationally addressed, or decisively closed for reasons that, as we shall see, Schopenhauer well understood, even if confusedly.

Schopenhauer was able to cross over ‘Trendelenburg’s gap’ , but he was still dreadfully confused, a confusion which catastrophically coloured his output, leading him into dead-ends and absurdities. What saved him, grounded him, tuned him to frequencies of genius and opened up a new path for spiritual enquiry in the West was that, unlike Kant, he did not essentially begin his argument with mind — but with experience. He lived a far more interesting life than Kant and, crucially, was far more sensitive to that life. Schopenhauer himself tells us that what he writes is meaningful and interesting because it comes from direct experience, which then forms its conceptual system. Professional philosophy8 goes in the other direction, starting with concepts and systems and then arguing these into conclusions, which then contain nothing more meaningful or real than what is contained in their premises; which is to say nothing at all.

This is why professional philosophy is dull, colourless and, in the end, meaningless, and it is why Schopenhauer is so instructive and entertaining, even when the divisions he makes between one field of experience and another are inaccurate, or even when he is just dead wrong, for it won’t be long before, even if expressed with misleading concepts or fitted into his flawed system, or coloured by his personal manias, a gleaming truth, direct from the source of life, radiates outwards.

Because so much of what Schopenhauer says comes directly from life, it is instantly recognisable as true, it is very often funny and, wonder-of-wonders, it is clear. This, for Schopenhauer is, with the honorable exception of Kant, a mark of sincerity and therefore a sign that the writer is at least capable of divining the truth (for how can reality be discovered without sincerity?) rather than merely thinking.

‘…the genuine philosopher will generally seek lucidity and clarity and will always strive not to be like a turbid, raging, rain-swollen stream, but much more like a Swiss lake, which, in its peacefulness, combines great depth with a great clarity that just reveals its great depth. Clarity is the good faith of philosophers…’ (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and Other Writings)

Schopenhauer rarely provides an idea without giving a concrete, and sometimes astonishingly vivid example. This is not just from a desire to be understood — although of course if someone has something meaningful to say, why would they not want to be understood?9 — but as a demonstration of the very point he is endeavouring to make, over and over again, that concepts come from life; or rather from a more direct sensate experience of life than thinking can provide. Conceptual thought without this experience is hollow, trivial, absurd and, no matter how well reasoned or argued, can never provide meaningful insight; as there was no such insight in the premises.

‘It all depends on where you have gotten your concept: if it is drawn from experience, fine, since its object exists and requires no further proof; in contrast, if it is hatched from your own half-brain, then all its predicates will not help it: it is just a figment of your imagination…’ (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason)

Schopenhauer (following Rousseau) was the first and greatest mind to fully tackle the principle fallacy of Western philosophy, the error that conceptual thought can grasp reality or, in its more extreme form, the outright lie, bordering on insane delusion, that conceptual thought somehow is reality. This madness, which has gripped Western minds since Plato, is as common today as it was when Schopenhauer was writing, even more so. Philosophers still mask their essential superficiality and emptiness with complex language (‘smug semantic trickery’), they still focus their attentions down ludicrously narrow avenues of enquiry, they still search for meaning in abstract reflection and they still get handsomely paid and widely praised for all this pointless activity. Schopenhauer would have been just as disgusted with the state of professional philosophy today as he was with that of his own day; with, as he said, those who live from philosophy rather than for it.

Another hallmark of philosophical truth, although not one that Schopenhauer dwells on is, aside from its depth, its width. If a philosopher goes looking for reality where it can actually be found — everywhere — then he will necessarily make interesting discoveries everywhere. Not only will the essential truth of his investigations illumine whatever matter he directs his attention to, but that very light will glow from wherever his attention happens to be, whether that be on the body of his lover, a painting that is touching him, the river he sits next to, the feelings of anxiety he has on entering a room, the surprising boredom he feels after he has achieved what he wants, his relationship with his mother or a particularly funny friend he has — all of which, first of all, he will notice — for he is conscious — and, secondly, will naturally inform his philosophy, give him all kinds of things to contemplate and write about, metaphors in which to bridge distant fields of experience and greater insight into the single truth that animates all these disparate truths, all of which mark Schopenhauer’s work.

Of course none of this matters in the slightest if the philosopher’s experience is limited by habit or by fear, if he lives his entire life in institutions, if he has no interest in matters of real existential importance — love and death — or if he is not truly sensitive; if everything that happens to him comes filtered through his emotions and his thoughts. To some extent this did apply to Schopenhauer; he was rich, not much of a lover, appallingly neurotic and although he travelled widely, not tremendously well-acquainted with the breadth of life. But as far as life is concerned, and acquaintance of it, he left all other thinkers far behind, before and since; with the notable exceptions of those who also had something to say (Hume, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc.).

Let’s return to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Following Kant, he said that reality (or the thing-in-itself) comes to us via the senses, after which the mind, from that ‘raw’ sense-data, first of all creates perception — all the objects around us, existing in space and time, with their colours and shapes and so on — and then conception — abstract ideas about experience which are related in the mind into ideas, theories, memories, beliefs, systems and so on. First there is reality, ‘then’ there is percept, then there is concept.10 What this means is the Schopenhauer’s philosophy, like Kant’s, or like any philosophy which puts reality before perception and conception in this way, can never be proven. Discovering or establishing proof through rational means is a conceptual activity based on perception. That both percept and concept are secondary to reality is literally inconceivable, let alone unprovable.

But if this is the case, how do we know that what anyone says about reality is truthful or accurate, and not complete nonsense? Schopenhauer gives something like the following analogy:

Before the Rosetta stone was discovered it was impossible to understand Egyptian hieroglyphics. There was no ‘philosophy’ by which Egyptian symbols could be translated into languages which we understand. When the code was cracked, we had such a ‘philosophy’ which, almost at once, began to make sense of the hieroglyphics that we encountered. Does that mean we have now proved that our ‘philosophy of Egyptian’ is true? No, it just means that, up until now, it has worked. We can never prove that we understand Egyptian hieroglyphics — indeed that anyone understands any language. But we still know they do. We know that someone speaks fluent Chinese, for example, by their ability to deal with all the Chinese they encounter, just as we know that someone’s philosophy is true by its ability to deal with all the mysteries it encounters; not because it has been proved in logical thought.

Schopenhauer does not speak well of logic and the quest for proof. ‘In general,’ he says ‘proofs are not for those who want to learn so much as for those who want to argue,’ and ‘learning logic for practical purposes is like training a beaver to build its own dam.’ Kant also had a low opinion of it:

‘Now one can take it as a certain and useful warning that general logic, considered as an organon, is always a logic of illusion, i.e., is dialectical. For since it teaches us nothing at all about the content of cognition, but only the formal conditions of agreement with the understanding, which are entirely indifferent with regard to the objects, the effrontery of using it as a tool (organon) for an expansion and extension of its information, or at least the pretension of so doing, comes down to nothing but idle chatter, asserting or impeaching whatever one wants with some plausibility.’ (Critique of Pure Reason)

None of this means that seeking proof, or the rational activity that leads to it, is a useless activity. Schopenhauer is at pains to point out that for matters in which it makes sense to speak of cause and effect, time and space, abstraction and relation, the rational mind is the appropriate tool to use, and ignoring what it is and what it does in its proper sphere leads to confusion, and often to outright charlatanism. But thought is powerless to uncover that which precedes or encompasses conception and perception, which includes all the ‘ultimates’ upon which the rational mind is based. What happened before the universe was created? What actually is time and space? What is that which is conscious of the objects of the world? What is matter, the stuff of the universe? What is energy? What is that which my perceptions and conceptions are of? We can always approach the ‘why’ of things with the mind, never the what.

Because thought (conception) is abstracted from perception, which itself is a ‘result’ of the thing-in-itself, thought can never reveal what experience really is, any more than a score can reveal what music really is. Thought can only tell us what it is, what thought is; abstract relation, conceptual symbol and conceptual law. Conception can tell us how all the ideas it presents to us are related with each other, it can form accurate ideas of cause and effect which consistently and usefully ‘map’ onto experience, it can, to some extent, preserve the past and predict the future, but it can never, ultimately, give us the slightest insight into that from which thought emerges, the terrain from which the map is taken. Schopenhauer provides a vivid (and funny) metaphor for this;

‘…given a complete [scientific] account of the whole of nature, the philosophical investigator would always feel like someone who finds himself in completely unfamiliar company without knowing how, and where each person in turn introduces another as his friend or cousin, thus making them sufficiently acquainted: in the meantime, however, the man himself, while expressing his pleasure at each new acquaintance, keeps asking himself: “But how the devil do I fit in to this whole group?”’ (The World as Will and Representation)

What all this means is that there is no relation between reality and the experience of the self. Sensory experience in time and space can be said to ‘come from’ some thing-in-itself, but perceived knowledge cannot be related to the source of perceived knowledge because relation itself is a kind of perception-knowledge:

‘…the law of causality is the first condition of all empirical intuition, but this is the form in which all experience occurs: how then could the law first be derived from experience, for which it is the essential prerequisite?’ (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason)

This means that it is impossible to ever observe cause and effect. This was one of Hume’s most important ideas, taken up by Kant also. You can watch a million billiard balls hit a million more, but you’ll never see the ‘necessary connection’ which you think made it, along with everything else in the world that you observe, happen. Causality, insofar as we can speak or think of it, exists entirely in the mind. This means that there is never any logical reason to suppose that the next time you drop a rubber ball, for example, it won’t cease to bounce, or explode, or turn into a duck egg. The only reason you ‘know’ it won’t is because it’s bounciness ‘fits’ with all your other observations of the world, and with your innate time-space grasp of cause and effect.

It is this interconnectedness of ideas which distinguishes waking reality from dreams. Dreams seem just as real to us as the waking world does, but when we wake we know it is a dream because nothing within the dream really ‘fits together’. Sometimes even in dreams we know this; we think ‘hang on, I don’t live with Woody Allen’, or ‘Why’s that narwal wearing a boa?’. This doesn’t mean that the waking world really is real though, just more real, or more reliable. Kant again:

‘The difference between truth and dream, however, is not decided through the quality of the representations that are referred to objects, for they are the same in both, but through their connection according to the rules that determine the connection of representations in the concept of an object, and how far they can or cannot stand together in one experience.’ (Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics)

So what is really real? What is the ‘thing-in-itself’, and how do we experience it? Before we get to Schopenhauer’s highly misleading answer (and my clarification) it’s worth exploring a couple of foundational consequences of what he has said so far. The first is that if space and time really are functions of the mind, then there would appear to be, ultimately, or in some way, no difference between anything. There is no difference between the chair and the table, or between me and you, or even between you and Napoleon Bonaparte. ‘Difference’, in space (which we call position) and in time (which we call succession) do not really exist, and so everything is, ultimately, one.

This doesn’t mean that there is no difference at all between you and Napoleon Bonaparte — probably you’ve noticed this? There must be something in the depths of youness which differentiates you from a dead emperor, but what that difference really is, the mind can never know, because it can only know the difference it perceives. What’s more there is no reason to rule out, along with this difference, a mind-blowing identity between you, at your core, and everything which is, has been, or ever could be.

It is this identity which forms the essence of Schopenhauer’s ethics. He says that although we, you and I, are clearly somehow different, we are also, somehow, the same. Sensitivity to this sameness we call empathy, an extremely intimate but real — rather than merely reasoned — experience of the other. Because of the intimacy and reality of this experience — I feel, in hurting you, that I am hurting myself — it is both impossible to ignore and, ultimately, to define.11 All definable and abstract ‘ethical systems’ in contrast — including the demands of religions, the laws of states and all the ‘oughts’ that parents regularly assail their children with — are based on sand, and doomed. They need to be learnt with effort, enforced with effort and can effortlessly be circumvented.

Another of the interesting consequences of understanding reality in the manner that Schopenhauer suggests is that the interminable debate about free will vanishes. This is because the world of percepts and concepts that we take as the world is the only world in which cause and effect can have any meaning. In the world — in the objective matter which I perceive and conceive — there is clearly no such thing as free will, or only in a limited sense. Everything ‘out there’ (and by ‘out there’ we also mean the world of the mind and of emotional motive) has a cause. We may, with difficulty, think it doesn’t, but we certainly do not live that way. When we get ill, when we see a magic trick, when someone tells us something bizarre, we immediately and quite sanely start looking for causes. We couldn’t live any other way.

But this is not how it is when I look within, beyond my ideas and motivating emotions.12 Here I sense — and the feeling is unshakable — that I am essentially free, and from there I go on to assume that somehow everyone is, in their ‘core’, free also — and therefore responsible for what they say and do. I might philosophically assume that everyone’s acts are really determined — and of course there is some relative truth and value in that too — but such a defence doesn’t cut it when I am wronged or when someone is continually blaming the past for their misdeeds. Then we cannot help calling on their freedom. Living together is just inconceivable any other way.

So whether I have ‘free will’ depends entirely on what aspect of ‘I’ am attending to. If it is the external I, the I that comes to me through percept and concept, then no, I am clearly not very free, if at all. But if I attend to that ‘from which’ percepts and concepts ‘arise’ — I discover an unshakable and, in the end, truthful sense of freedom.

But how is this? And what is this ‘other kind’ of I? Earlier we saw, in Kant’s teaching, that what I perceive and conceive ‘comes from’ (note the scare quotes here and elsewhere in this account — it doesn’t really ‘come from’, but there’s no other way to talk about it) a thing-in-itself which I can never experience or rationally grasp, that is forever alien to me, remote. Kant however speculated, albeit fleetingly, that there is one thing-in-itself which we can experience:

‘…although extension, impenetrability, composition and motion — in short, everything our outer senses can transmit to us — are not thoughts, feelings, inclinations or decisions, and cannot contain them, as these are never objects of outer intuition, yet that same Something that grounds outer appearances and affects our sense so that it receives the representations of space, matter, shape, etc. — this Something, considered as noumenon (or better, as transcendental object) could also at the same time be the subject of thoughts…’ (Critique of Pure Reason)

He abandoned this line of enquiry, but it was taken up enthusiastically (if misleadingly) by Schopenhauer who reasoned, correctly, that of course I am and must be a thing-in-itself too. Because space and time do not apply to the thing in itself, because distinction and separation are meaningless to it, because it doesn’t come into or pass out of existence, then I am, and have always been, that which I experience.

It’s an insane idea of course, but logic leads towards it13, instinct resonates with it, the finest minds in history and pre-history agree with it and it obliterates all the perplexing problems of philosophy.

Take idealism and realism (also known, in another form, as the mind-body problem). Remember, idealism is the belief that nothing is real but the mind — that the ‘subjective’ I causes reality (or my experience of it, of the ‘body’), while realism (also known as materialism or, today, physicalism) is the belief that only the ‘objective’ world is real and that it, matter (or matter and energy), causes everything we perceive and experience, including ‘mind’. But if ‘cause’ cannot apply to the thing-in-itself, either the objective bodything out there I perceive or the subjective mindthing in here that I am, then both of these positions must be wrong. Cause and effect are created by the rational mind, so it is incoherent to say that objects or subjects cause the world. There is, ultimately, no such thing as cause.

This has been reasonably clear since Kant suggested it — although in fact Kant made the foolish mistake of assuming that the thing-in-itself causes representation of it — and since Schopenhauer explained it, but philosophers (and in their own way, ordinary people) still cling to idealism (aka solipsism) and materialism/physicalism (or scientism). The reason for this, well understood by Schopenhauer and mercilessly exposed by Nietzsche, is that ultimately philosophy is not chosen for rational reasons, but for psychological ones. It is true that Kant has no answer to Trendelenburg, it is true that Schopenhauer offers no argument for his assumption that ‘all causality is only in the understanding and for the understanding,’ but these are not the reasons that the reality posited by Kant-Schopenhauer is rejected, any more than the absurdities of religion and science are the reasons why they are rejected. Philosophy — all philosophy, whether of the lectern, the pulpit or the pub — is psychology. Idealism is held to because excuses the self (nothing really matters because nothing is really real) and materialism/physicalism justifies the self (I’m not responsible, the objective world is). The reason that transcendental idealism has never been popular is that it sweeps away these two comforting excuses, which most people spend most of their lives alternating between.

But what remains? What, if we remove the illusory self and the illusory world, is there? Here we are at the bedrock, at the thing-in-itself. What is it and how can we ‘know’ or experience it if not through percepts and concepts? And here we arrive at the fundamental flaw in the philosophical diamond that Schopenhauer gave the world. He calls the thing-in-itself will, a word which, at various times in his writings he identifies as the thing-in-itself (the timeless, spaceless ground of all existence), as emotion (inner sense; both conscious and unconscious), as evolutionary instinct (genetic / animal urges which manifest as emotions), as free will and as the subject. Five completely different things!

This causes to him to make an enormous number of incoherent and contradictory statements. Christopher Janaway (who doesn’t really understand the heart of Schopenhauer’s philosophy) has highlighted many of the contradictions between Schopenhauer’s subject, will and the thing-in-itself, and there are many more.

For example, Schopenhauer says that will (instinct) is a pitiless, selfish, violent, horrific and utterly blind force — a mad impulse to grow and feed and live, no matter what the cost, to produce living forms, or species, the sole purpose of which, if it can be called a ‘purpose,’ is to climb over other species in order to continue living and growing and spreading. The individual is meaningless to this ‘will’, it extinguishes them — us — without hesitation, in our millions. What’s more, living in us, it causes us untold misery, compelling us to steal, cheat, rape, kill, God knows what else, just to serve it.

It is this incredibly bleak and bloodthirsty picture of reality which has earnt Schopenhauer the title of the ‘philosopher of pessimism’. Intelligently reading his books shows otherwise, but there is no question that he gets off on morbidly detailing this aspect of the will, and of the horrors of the world. But then, not long after, he says that the will can be ‘silenced’ or ‘negated’, that I can know the thing-in-itself in all its transcendent mind-obliterating totality. But what is it that does the silencing? The will? If so Schopenhauer is saying that will needs to silence will in order to know will. Sometimes he says that ‘reason’ or the ‘intellect’ must do the recognising and silencing — precisely that part of the self that he correctly identifies as the most superficial and illusory.

Schopenhauer reveals his confusion most clearly when he talks about the ideas. These, which he picks up from Plato, are the eternal or archetypical essence of things which, when the will is silent, we see clearly in all their wonderful suchness. These ideas do seem to have some reality, although quite what that is isn’t clear; Plato’s entirely conceptual notion — that all actual horses are photocopies of a perfect abstract horse — is just loopy. More than likely the ideas are, as Schopenhauer suggests, a kind of intimation of eternity in the local forms we see around us; the quintessential woman that we love in our girlfriends perhaps, or the marvellous cowness of cow. But whatever they are — and perhaps we are just talking about the vivid, timeless reality of what is in front of our eyes, without the clouding distraction of self — what is it within us that experiences them? It can only be one’s own essence or consciousness. Again Schopenhauer considers essence to be a blind and miserable force, which, he says, must be denied in order for the intellect to perceive the ideas (or later, to perceive the eternal ground of existence), and so he is led into the same unintelligible philosophical loop; that will must be denied in order for will to perceive the will.

Let’s clear it up then. We’ve got emotion, instinct, free-will and the ‘thing-in-itself’, all of which Schopenhauer calls ‘will’. We’ve also got percept and concept, which Schopenhauer understands very well, and consciousness, which sometimes he identifies with conceptualisation, or the subject, or14 as ‘the ground’ of consciousness. The truth is that consciousness is what I am, it is the thing-in-itself which I can experience, or be, and when I experience it, or am it, I somehow experience the ‘cause’ of reality everywhere and at all times. It’s not really a ‘cause’ — I experience it and its ‘relationship’ with the world as something which the mind can’t describe with its ordinary language. But in any case this thing-in-itself ‘enters’ reality as my self, as free-will, as feeling, as perception and as conception; as ‘my’ world.

There once was a time when reality was lived in this way, an impossible consciousness manifesting as the self-world, but at some point the manifest self began to lead its own existence, pulling itself over my eyes, so to speak, and calling itself ‘me’. This false me (or ego), without original, unifying consciousness, was no longer a machine operated ‘by’ consciousness, but by itself; self-informed, or selfish. As the elements of self — will, feeling, perception and conception — lost their integration with consciousness, and the immeasurably nuanced context, they become crude and contentious. The subtle and harmoniously integrated I became a collection of degenerate parts; a limited range of selfish emotions, degraded perception, atrophied will and an endless stream of boring and predicable self-oriented thoughts: all the negativity which Schopenhauer mistakenly lumps together with the original I, the thing-in-myself, which he correctly identifies as the transcendent truth.

Once we have clarified Schopenhauer’s thought in this way his errors become clear and pretty much everything else he says makes sense. When, for example, he declares that genius has a ‘a greater amount of cognitive power,’ what he means is that genius has a greater degree of consciousness combined with, necessarily, a more sensitive and, eventually, well-developed perceiving and thinking self. When he says that ‘genius is contrary to nature’ he means that consciousness is contrary to self-informed instinct. When he says that ‘the innermost kernel of the I’ persists after death while consciousness is an ‘epiphenomenon’ that passes away with death, he means that consciousness, the thing-in-myself, persists while the temporal self passes away. And when he declares that nature is a superviolent horrorshow while, at the same time, being the reflection of eternity, perfection incarnate, he means that nature perceived through the selfish self is constant warfare (just as matter is completely determined), while nature experienced directly, as the thing-in-myself, is paradise.

There’s a lot more to say about Schopenhauer — his nonsense views on sex15, women16, the state17 and race18, and, contrariwise his sublime observations on art, physiognomy and genius for example, or his remarkable love for and acute observation of animals, or his hilarious beef with the shallow confounder Hegel.19 I suggest you take a read yourself though. The World as Will and Representation is excellent, as is his large collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena (in both cases I recommend the recent Cambridge translations20). I’ll conclude part one of this investigation — we’ll return to how we might ‘know’ the thing-in-itself in part two — with one of Schopenhauer’s memorable images, this one expressing his conviction that death cannot possibly be the end of consciousness. As thing-in-itself it can no more die than it can be born: such notions are of the time-space world, of the time-space mind. Stepping back from that reveals a sense of eternity untroubled by beliefs, philosophies, gods and monsters.

‘Death is like the setting of the sun that only seems to be devoured by night, but in truth, as the source of all light, burns without pause, bringing new days to new worlds, forever rising and forever setting.’

(part 2 here)


  1. Or thought and emotion: Descartes used the word ‘thinking’ to describe any kind of ‘mental phenonema,’ which included emotions.
  2. Or, in a softer dualistic form, ultimately.
  3. Or, again, ultimately.
  4. What we call ‘religion’ for example, or ‘postmodernism’ — these are actually forms of idealism while ‘science’ and ‘logic’ and so on, are forms of realism.
  5. They are some the most confusing works in the history of literature, suggesting, as Schopenhauer pointed out, that the author himself cannot have been thinking clearly.
  6. And building it on the feeblest of foundations; the abstract mind — as if ideas stands a chance against the fury of fear and desire.
  7. ‘…although extension, impenetrability, composition and motion – in short, everything our outer senses can transmit to us – are not thoughts, feelings, inclinations or decisions, and cannot contain them, as these are never objects of outer intuition, yet that same Something that grounds outer appearances and affects our sense so that it receives the representations of space, matter, shape, etc. – this Something, considered as noumenon (or better, as transcendental object) could also at the same time be the subject of thoughts…’ (Critique of Pure Reason)
  8. The spurious ‘deep thought’ that has bored countless students expecting to find something actually meaningful in it — cruelly deceived upon starting their degrees.
  9. There is understanding and there is understanding. Here we are talking about clarity. The words of many a great philosopher, from Lao Tzu to Krishnamurti cannot be understood by the mind, but they are perfectly clear to it and do not disbar the uneducated.
  10. Note that Schopenhauer didn’t use these words — he uses will for reality, intuition for perception, and concept for conception. I’ve used these clearer terms although I’ll return to his central term, ‘will,’ a bit later. Note also that Kant did not make a distinction between percept and concept, a grave error which, as Schopenhauer points out in his ‘Critique of the Kantian Philosophy,’ leads to the ridiculous conclusion that animals, who have a very weak conceptual system, cannot know objects!
  11. Although of course the scientific mind can’t see that.
  12. Something that very few people can do, of course, which is why many philosophers find the idea incoherent; much as someone who had never seen the colour red would find descriptions of its ‘exciting’ and ‘aggressive’ qualities utterly bewildering.
  13. Which doesn’t mean logic proves it. There remains the possibility — known as the ‘neglected alternative’, first proposed by Friedrich Trendelenburg — that the thing in itself is still, coincidentally, as the mind perceives and conceives it.
  14. In On the Freedom of the Will, published in The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics.
  15. Basically negative, although he was the first person to really openly discuss it in the West.
  16. His infamous essay ‘On Woman’ contains a great deal of condescending rubbish, but it does also contain truth too.
  17. Namely that it was necessary. His politics generally were bourgeois, although he was rightly contemptuous of the monstrous gibberish of Hegel, who declared that the state represented the highest destiny of mankind.
  18. He believed that white people were inherently more sensitive and creative than darker-skinned folk; although he was fervently anti-slavery, describing the treatment of ‘[our] innocent black brothers whom force and injustice have delivered into [the slave-master’s] devilish clutches” as “belonging to the blackest pages of mankind’s criminal record’.[
  19. ‘…anyone who could read his most celebrated work, the so-called Phenomenology of the Spirit, without having the impression that he was in a madhouse, would belong in one.’
  20. Very expensive unfortunately. You could try writing to Cambridge, saying that you write a popular philosophy blog and asking them to send you some review copies though. I hear that’s a very effective approach generally for getting loads of free books from academic publishers.