Of all the great philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer has the poorest academic reputation; he is largely ignored, often dismissed when discussed; while his theories are badly misunderstood and distorted. The TLS provided a good example the other week.[iv] In a review of a recent biography, the first for many years, Jonathan Rée quotes the 19th century Westminster Review to confirm his own opinion.
Having accepted Kant’s doctrine of the unreality of space, time and causality, he had sought the truth of the “thing in itself” in the inner world of intellect and emotion, and failing to find it there, he concluded that life as we know it is nothing but inner vanity wrapped in outer delusion…
He goes on:
And his conspicuous flakiness in practice was matched by spectacular contradictions in theory. Schopenhauer started by urging us to turn away from the inner illusions of the outer world to discover the “thing in itself” in the form of the inner will; but then he sawed through the branch he was sitting on by treating the individual will as another delusive appearance – no more than the mask of a universal, impersonal force of oblivion from which all our follies take their rise and to which they all return… those of us who cling to the will to live are more likely to see it as a torrent of blowsy fine words: the perfect example of philosophical kitsch.
One wonders if he has ever read any Schopenhauer. Is it all gleaned from secondary sources; and badly misunderstood ones at that?
Schopenhauer’s first volume of the World as Will and Representation is divided into four parts, the second deals with the Will and the last with morality; though as he explains at the beginning they all form a unity; a single thought. The main thesis is contained in the title, and is an explanation of the world in essentially Kantian terms, but with a crucial modification. Unlike Kant he thought we could a get sense of the unknowable “thing in itself”, through considering our own will. However, he made what Bryan Magee has rightly said was a monumental error when he called the “thing in itself” the Will, and thus proceeded to confuse many future generations, and particularly academics, who have conceived of it solely in human terms. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer did carefully and clearly describe what he meant by the word: it is the natural forces that underpin reality; and is close to what we understand today as energy; although energy is only the phenomenal product of this metaphysical power. Our will is a manifestation of this force in our own bodies, in the same way it is embodied in a fox, a tree and the rising sun.
[Science] does nothing more than show the orderly arrangement according to which the states or phenomenon must necessarily appear at this time and in this place. It therefore determines for them their position in time and space according to a law whose definite content has been taught by experience, yet whose universal form and necessity are known to us independently of experience. But in this way we do not obtain the slightest information about the inner nature of any one of these phenomenon. This is called a natural force, and lies outside the province of etiological explanation… The force itself that is manifested, the inner nature of the phenomena that appear in accordance with those laws, remain for it an eternal secret, something entirely strange and unknown, in the case of the simplest as well as of the most complicated phenomenon.
There are things that we can know – physics and chemistry –, and there are things that we can only speculate about – the Will. The one is science the other metaphysics; though even here Schopenhauer would make a distinction between what we can and cannot sensibly discuss. For him much metaphysical talk, like the varieties of Hegel and Fichte, is merely windy verbiage, nonsense wrapped up in jargon and fine linen.
Now my philosophy is certainly not so ordered that anyone could live by it. It lacks the first indispensable requisite for a well-paid professorial philosophy, namely a speculative theology, which should and must be the principal theme of all philosophy – in spite of the troublesome Kant with his Critique of Pure Reason; although such a philosophy thus has the task of for ever talking about that of which it can know absolutely nothing.
Schopenhauer’s first concern is to understand the world, in all its aspects, including both the phenomenal and the noumenal; and where the rich variety of the former is discussed through science, the arts and morality. He doesn’t try to reduce the rocks and grass to their emotions and intellect…. But note, Rée thinks this is precisely what he tries to do, at least at first. This is because he has reduced Schopenhauer’s philosophy to the level of the individual human, it is all about us!; with our emotions and intellect now part of the “thing in itself”. Since this is such a basic error, of which Schopenhauer, a knowledgeable and profound reader of Kant, would not have made, it is therefore remarkable that Rée should quote it without comment.[v] It strongly suggests that he doesn’t know this philosophy at all.[vi]
A significant part of Schopenhauer’s investigation was into the force that produces the phenomenal world; and he thought his own will gave him an insight into it; our wills the one thing we share with the rest of the world’s phenomena. Not our intellect, or our minds, or our feelings, but the force of our will, over which we appear to have little or no control, this was the clue, he thought, to reality’s mystery. So given that our inner nature, like the inner nature of the universe, is the Will, an impersonal force, one wonders how it can be regarded as “inner vanity”? All we know is it propels everything to live and then to die; but for no reason. It just exists. But crucially it creates the life around us – thus cannot by definition be pointless or futile (the most appropriate definition of vanity in this case); or be “an impersonal force of oblivion”; another extraordinary mistake. Schopenhauer makes a distinction both between our own will and the Will (they are not the same, as the Will manifests itself in all nature but is different from it), and between our will and our intellect; the former a kind of bodily function – it has no mind. How then could he find that our will is all “inner vanity”? Is our nervous system vain and pointless? It suggests that the philosopher expected to find some consciousness or meaning in the universe, whether in our bodies or in the thing-in-itself; but this is just what Schopenhauer expects it not to have. Of course people have believed that the world has meaning; that reality is mind-saturated, either by God or some metaphysical Zeitgeist. However, his attacks on what he regards as this illusion, and his emphasis on the meaninglessness of our reality, at a time when Christianity was still strong, is something very different from an intellectual attempt to find a universal purpose; and the despair that follows when it fails. Indeed, there is tremendous elation, despite the pessimism (a good example of the difference between the intellectual excitement of finding these ideas, and the value placed on the ideas themselves), in his philosophical enquiry. For he has found the truth! He knows how the world works; and has discovered its deepest mysteries… and this is infinitely more important, and more satisfying, than to find God nestled quietly amongst his angels.
The use of the word delusion is odd. The Will is both the source of life and its most powerful component. Schopenhauer’s pessimism comes from his own psychology, with its exceptionally strong emotional and sexual drives. He felt his own will intensely, and wanted to escape from it. At the same time he exposed what high minded people thought were noble or spiritual things, like young love or Hegelian philosophy, as merely drives of the Will, what Nietzsche would later modify as the Will to Power, which each and everyone of us tries to mask in fine sentiments and lofty phrases. Nevertheless, he made many clear distinctions between both people and things; thus his idea of the genius who can transcend their own petty interests – Goethe, Plato, Spinoza… - and his love of the arts and philosophy; outstanding human achievements that he did not believe were either an illusion or futile. He also made it very clear that the phenomenal world, the world of representation, is not a delusion, an imaginary construct out of our own minds, a view he believed of the German idealists; but rather that the phenomenal word does exist, just that we see it in a particular way because of how our minds are made – space, time and causality are hard-wired into our mental apparatus, our understanding of the world. Thus any one thing, St Paul’s Cathedral or a Mini Cooper, with be both object and subject fused into one perception, into one understanding; it will be a single perceptual experience.
The confusion in the first paragraph is extraordinary, for it mixes up Schopenhauer’s views on morality with his understanding of nature and the universe. They are two separate ideas, though part of one large metaphysical system. For him the philosophical truth is that there is a force that generates and maintains all life; and from out which the individual species, and ultimately man, is created. He is not looking for meaning in that force. In fact he specifically writes against it: his main criticism of academic philosophers is that they talk about things they cannot know, and want to grasp a metaphysical truth they cannot reach. Once he has discovered this truth he then gives a moral value to it, which comes out of his own psychology; although in typical style it becomes not his own opinion but the moral interpretation of the human situation. However, a different personality, the mature Nietzsche for example, can accept the Will but reverse its moral polarity – he believed we should embrace it as life enhancing. Rée seems to confuse these two things completely: that rather than there being a truth about the universe, which has no meaning, there must a truth within the universe, that does. And when Schopenhauer discovers his mistake, that the universe contains no truth, he comes to believe all is illusion. How can a professional philosopher make such a basic mistake? The simple answer is I don’t know.[vii] Although it is curious, and perhaps telling, that Rée reverses Schopenhauer’s investigation: first looking for meaning in the human; and only after all else has failed, accepting an impersonal, meaningless Will. He assumes that the human is central to Schopenhauer’s philosophy; when it is merely another phenomena, albeit a very important one (only we are conscious of the universe), to be studied and explained by extra-human, impersonal forces. His philosophy is a collation of the latest scientific researches with a metaphysical extension – to explain a part of the universe that they cannot. It is not a psychology textbook, or an atheist’s bible, which seems the implication in this kind of reasoning.
The second paragraph continues the error, because he has reduced Schopenhauer’s philosophy to the individual consciousness. In his hands it has become a sort of self-help manual for the philosophically inclined. Is this how Rée himself sees his discipline? Schopenhauer starts with the phenomenal world and then goes onto the Will; it is only at the end he discusses morality. Rée, by reversing his investigation, misunderstands it, almost completely, and reduces it to the absurd. Given that our own wills are part of the Will, and Schopenhauer recognised this from the beginning of his enquiry, how could he conclude they are a delusion? In fact he didn’t. He recognised all to clearly its strength in him. It is precisely because it is too real, and too forceful, that he wants to turn against his will; which overpowers his personality; his will to philosophize. During the course of his discussion on practical reason he considers the Stoics, and their withdrawal from life. Unexpectedly he doesn’t award them any moral points; for him, although there are side benefits to their asceticism, these are the selfish actions of intelligent men, who want the calm life in order to think.
For the Stoic ethics is originally and essentially not a doctrine of virtue, but merely a guide to the rational life, whose end is happiness through peace of mind.
This is surely a reflection of his own sensibility, though a contradictory one – the very strength of his will made him a genius, the very thing that caused his unhappiness.[viii] In a recent talk the poet David Constantine touched briefly on the creative process. He mentioned how poems are strange gifts that we receive, almost from nowhere, and which give a feeling of completeness, and of fullness; and which leaves us when the inspiration goes. Thus an inevitable part of the creative process is a cycle of elation and dejection: the creative act is a form of bi-polar… Is it little wonder that Schopenhauer, who didn’t have a settled family or a stable nexus of relationships, some emotional ballast to balance him, would suffer from such a process; given his powerful personality? And that he would wish to escape it, once the act of creation was over? It may also reflect the nature of his creative life: one massive insight early on; which he only later refined and modified; so all that creative will was washing around inside him, but was going nowhere; like waves battering the shore after those immense storms out at sea. Wouldn’t the rest of his life, after that initial climatic outburst, be something of a let down? Yet all that life and energy was still demanding attention, forcing its way to the surface; unsettling and disturbing him...
Schopenhauer wanted to escape his own will, and Buddhism and the Christian ascetics offered him a model to do so. Does Rée think they are kitsch too? He wrote of the human capacity to turn against our wills, and like the great saints and ascetics, reduce our desires, the driving force of our appetites and unhappiness. There are lots of problems with this, Christopher Janaway mentions some in the same issue, and they are linked to Schopenhauer’s determinist thinking; and his egoism: his tendency to project himself onto everyone else. However, the original insight, of a self-generating force at the heart of nature, which is also the most powerful thing in our own lives, is a very important and influential one – Freud’s theory of the unconscious is taken nearly wholesale from it (his theory of repression feels almost like plagiarism). But this insight can be separated from his recommendations on moral conduct. Yes, there are contradictions in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, but they stem from his value judgements and the links he makes between the Will and its manifestations in the phenomenal world; coupled with his attitude towards the human condition. It is these links that have to be thought about, amended and altered.
Rée has highlighted a problem with the philosophy, and believes this great contradiction is enough to junk it. Although is a contradiction in itself enough to sink a philosophical theory? Bryan Magee has consistently argued that philosophy is akin to the arts; in that it seeks to have insights; although it uses arguments to support them. Rée has not only misunderstood the theory but has not reflected as to whether Schopenhauer’s “contradiction” might in itself be interesting; that it may give an insight into the peculiarities, the oddness, of the human animal. For example, how can humans even think they can turn against their own wills; the life force itself. That they can believe that the mind is somehow more important, and indeed, in the mystics he cites, is more important, that the forces of nature. What is distinct about the human that allows them not only to contemplate such thoughts, but in some extraordinary individuals, to achieve them?
[After discussing various imperfections of the mind] Nature has produced it for the service of an individual will; therefore it is destined to know things only in so far as they serve as the motives of such a will, not to fathom them or to comprehend their true inner essence. Human intellect is only a higher degree of the animal intellect, and just as this animal intellect is limited entirely to the present, so also our intellect bear strong traces of this limitation. Therefore, our memory and recollection are a very imperfect thing. How little are we able to recall of what we have done, experienced, learnt, or read! And even this little often only laboriously and imperfectly. For the impression is of the present moment. Unconsciousness is the original and natural condition of all things, and therefore is also the basis from which, in particular species of beings, consciousness appears as their highest efflorescence; and for this reason, even then unconsciousness still always predominates. (The World as Will and Representation Vol II)
Like animals we are designed to live, and this is reflected in our minds; the operation of which is largely unconscious; and is concentrated on the here and now; those prerequisites for survival. However, the human mind allows us transcend these limitations, however imperfectly. There is no doubt that having such a mind, with its capacity to remember, to compare and contrast, and to create completely new things, has been extraordinarily useful in propagating the species; but is it central to our survival or well-being? There is a natural tendency to read our present back into the past; to see all that history as a determinant of own time; everything leads to the market economy and the automobile. But does it? Given the length of human history, and how late is modern science, is it so obvious that these later capacities, on which much of that science is based, and which were latent for much of that history, were specifically designed for our survival; and, moreover, that they are a good thing for the species and the world? For most of that history they would have been irrelevant to our needs and daily actions. And today, where they are dominant, it looks like they may destroy the planet; by nuclear war or environmental degradation. Schopenhauer’s suggestion is that our minds are secondary qualities, mere tools for the individual will. What is more, they are relatively poor tools; and useful precisely because of their poverty.
Art…plucks the object of its contemplation from the stream of the world’s course, and holds it isolated before it. This particular thing, which in that stream was an infinitesimal part, becomes for art a representative of the whole, an equivalent of the infinitely many in space and time…. Only through [this] pure contemplation…, which becomes absorbed entirely in the object, are the Ideas comprehended; and the nature of genius consists precisely in the preeminent ability for such contemplation….this demands a complete forgetting of our own person and of its relations and connexions… Accordingly, genius is the capacity to remain in a state of pure perception, to lose oneself in perception, to remove from the service of the will the knowledge which originally existed only for this service. In other words, genius is the ability to leave entirely out of sight our own interest, our willing, and our aims, and consequently to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world; and this not merely for moments, but with the necessary continuity and conscious thought to enable us to repeat by deliberate art what has been apprehended, and “what in wavering apparition gleams fix in its place with thoughts that stand for ever!”[ix] (The World as Will and Representation Vol I)
He then goes on to describe some characteristics of this genius: “animation almost to disquietude”, and a zealousness forever unsatisfied with the present, as it looks for “new objects for contemplation”. Later on he compares the genius to the mad he meets in sanatoriums; their personalities alarmingly similar.
Compare this passage with the one immediately preceding it. In the former the mind is a useful tool, but is largely conditioned by our unconsciousness. In the latter it is a tool no longer, but has capacities that go beyond its daily needs; and is indifferent to them, when contemplating its world. Thus for the few, life is like a film in the cinema, where they are the only audience. These passages, far more than Schopenhauer’s discussion of morality, explain how we can turn away from the Will – we lose it in mental activity.[x] Or at least some people are able to do so, because they transcend the limitations of their person; the narrow interest of their own selves. Apart from being, pace Rée, a good guide to life – how confused he is about his “will to live!”[xi]-, this suggests something very important about the human mind. That its higher reaches, of abstract thought and high artistic achievement, are an anomaly, and could be an historical or, in today’s language, an evolutionary accident. They are not needed for survival, and could be detrimental towards it. The human mind! There is something very odd about it; and it is this oddness that needs to be explained. Schopenhauer here echoes both Chomsky and Jerry Fodor, the latter in particular suggesting that part our minds maybe like spandrels, arising as a by-product of other evolutionary mechanisms.
Why is Schopenhauer so disregarded?[xii] Part of the answer is contained in the quote at the head of this piece. A non-academic thinker attacking the academics at a time when philosophy and the other humanities were being subsumed within the university system. Such an attack, and there are many in his work, must make an academic philosopher, as opposed to a creative thinker who just happens to work in the academy, uncomfortable.[xiii] There is the vehemence of the language, of course; but also his assault on the newly formed guild; which highlights the tension between the “amateur” and the “professional”; the latter jealous of his own status. Thus we have the curious phenomena of Wittgenstein wholly absorbing Schopenhauer’s philosophy, and transforming it in the process, and who goes on to become one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century; yet his antecedents in the original philosophy were until recently not properly recognised.[xiv] One explanation could be that Wittgenstein brought his ideas up to date, removing all the outdated and non-technical stuff, and thus there was no need to return to the original. This explanation doesn’t work – you could argue the same with Bertrand Russell and David Hume.
Bryan Magee discussing the limitations of 20th century British philosophy mentions how the German tradition from Kant was not studied for most of the last century in Oxford and Cambridge. Thus you could have someone like A.J. Ayer consistently returning to Hume, as if he was the last word on all philosophical questions. Of course Hume had raised some of the most perplexing of problems (reason’s inability to ground itself, or provide a rational foundation for cause and effect; known only through habit and custom...); but does philosophy really end in the 18th century? Is Alexander Pope the last word on poetry?
The most important reason is perhaps history. Schopenhauer feels old-fashioned, because he talks of universals, as if nothing had changed between 18th century Frankfurt and ancient Athens; while he has little concern for politics or sociology (the latter now a huge conurbation within human knowledge). He failed to see the momentous changes that were taking place around him. Discussing the unchanging nature of the individual human he did not notice that the culture was indeed undergoing an immense transformation. Hegel, through his philosophy of history, both saw this and codified it. History was now the key to the modern world; and was seen as such during the 19th century. Here was something new, which appeared to explain something important about the nature of contemporary society; while anchoring it in the Prussian state gave thinkers a brand new metaphysical meaning to play around with. Schopenhauer had helped kill off the old God, but failed to account for the new one – the modern nation state. He didn’t see it. In this respect his philosophy was out of date the moment it arrived. Later in the century his influence increased; but more on the creative artists than on academic philosophy; the one exception was Wittgenstein, who was an oddity – a highly rational mystic.[xv]
His choice of topics may also give us some clues. He writes about sex and homosexuality, the difference between the sexes and other human concerns. This was fifty to a hundred years too soon! Later his ideas were incorporated in other, seemingly more technical work, like Freud’s theories; believed initially to be scientific.[xvi] Though by this time specialization was increasing; with philosophers less important than psychologists when it comes to explaining the human mind. He is ignored because he is not a specialist; but also because he relies too much on the technical discoveries of his day. For he supports his ideas will lots of examples from the science of the time, which went quickly out of date (particularly his biology). He feels pre-Darwinian; and yet he lived in the same century.
He attacks idealism, the strongest and most powerful force in academic life for the last two hundred years; from Hegel to Althusser to Derrida. Of course, all of these thinkers take it in different directions, but all, ultimately, prefer to live high up in their metaphysical skyscrapers… Perhaps the best example is the theories of Karl Marx: turned into pure metaphysics between the wars.[xvii]
The force of tradition. Because he missed the academic boat, too long wandering around those Greek sculptures, a conventional wisdom may have formed that there was no need to study him. That all he contains is in Kant or Freud; thinkers who are seen either as more profound or influential in the culture.[xviii]
His writing style may also be a problem. It is a mix of the academic and the literary, the latter vivid and highly personal, and very arrogant: he is an aristocrat in the dawning age of democracy. It is not easy to classify, and not fitting into either category it straddles both with cosmopolitan hauteur.[xix] Later Nietzsche created a new literary-philosophical style that removed the academic ponderousness; and was to have a large impact, particularly in France. In the 20th century, with the conquest by the specialists, we have the highly technical analytic philosophy of Britain and America, and the jargon filled subjectivism of the continent (somewhere along the way academic obscurantism found its way back in; German metaphysics marching into the salons of Paris’ St Germain). In both cases the writer who appeals to the professional and the (informed) amateur is downgraded; his range of reference too wide; his mastery of the (academic) technique too limited. He looks human, and what he says we understand, but he is a bit strange, perhaps a foreigner who hasn’t quite grasped our dialect; who misses the nuances, and misunderstands our little jokes and mores…. We say hello in the street; but invite him to dinner? Oh, there are far more interesting and (said sotto voce) civilised people to talk to… People like ourselves, for example (although this is never said).
And what about his pessimism? For over two hundred years we have lived the Age of Progress; where conditions in the West have improved, way beyond the expectations of even the most enlightened thinkers of the 18th century. It is no longer the case that most people live a life of short misery. Indeed, there has been an amazing reversal, and now we inhabit a society that is propelled by optimism; by a consumer industry that depends on boosterism. Next year’s car will always be better than last year’s… How could a pessimistic philosopher flourish in such an environment? He’d be as incongruous as a pensioner at a rave.
Geoff Dyer’s description of John Berger may give us the biggest clue of all.
Berger is not an academic historian and his historical method is radically illuminating rather than systematic. He sifts through historical raw material to find confirming evidence for a thesis he seeks to prove. His historical generalizations are not supported by the weight of evidence that would be necessary to a professional historian. Berger’s work is investigative, exploratory and provocative rather than definitive. He is a discoverer, learning as he goes along, and his work conveys the excitement of the discovery. This is rarely the case in the work of an ‘expert’ (there are, of course, exceptions). Like a mole, the expert burrows away and measures his progress by the amount of material he is amassing behind him: what lies ahead is that which still has to be got through – an obstacle. For Berger, what is still to be known gleams most brightly; an argument is rarely exhausted before he moves on to open up another. His is a mind constantly enriching itself. He has that instant intelligence that makes you think of the metaphysical poets – ‘men who incorporated their erudition into their sensibility’ – and ‘the direct sensuous apprehension of thought, or a recreation of thought into feeling…’
But it is exactly these qualities that compromise his academic standing as an ‘art historian’. Tim Clark has written that the social history of art should ‘not depend on intuitive analogies between form and content.’ Unlike Clarke, Berger formulates no methodological procedure; his work entirely lacking in [this] kind of procedural rigour…. Berger has produced nothing to rival the thoroughness of Clark’s investigations. This should not bother us. His concern has been with opening up new freedoms, clearing new paths. Because he excels in exactly the areas in which most academics are weak he is made to pay a tax to their strengths.[xx]
There is a tension between the creative thinker and the academic, between the person who lives off irrationality and the rational technocrat; and between the artist and the university system. It is only when the latter can safely incorporate the former into its culture that the maverick is properly celebrated. Intuition, wild flights of fancy, hunches and guesses, all these are far too irrational for an academic world that needs its well-tested methodologies, and its files full of facts. They are far too chaotic, too singular, for a system that needs order; and a research programme that confers conformity on its data.[xxi] Chomsky has said that most academics are like office clerks; they collect their stuff and file it away... Arguments, facts and consistency; these are models of the academic world; tellingly they are bureaucratic ones; although they have some connection to science. Not the great insights that open up new vistas, but the steady accumulation of knowledge within a given framework. Thus the tension in any university department between the bureaucrat and the free-thinking artist. Between a rule bound system and a person who breaks those rules… Schopenhauer, of course, was completely outside the academy; the tension in his case is therefore that much greater.
Dyer also picks out something else:
Thought for Berger is an almost physical effort (‘seeing’ is a metaphor for thinking), and his best essays show the signs of strain rather than ease; they are answers in the form of investigations. Their starting point is his uncertainty: why did Goya paint the Maja dressed and then undressed? What is it that is awkward about the peasants who were photographed in suits by August Sander… Berger’s moralizing is distinctly present… He also takes his readers seriously, hence the tensions at the heart of his style; the desire to be both guru and equal, perfectionist and democrat, to be a powerful writer motivating by a loathing of power… His language is always stripped of jargon; he struggles to express his arguments as simply as possible. He is at pains to make allowances for what different readers may know or not know, to appeal simultaneously to readerships normally thought of as distinct and separate… The other reason is to do with his politics….
What this, and the reference to the metaphysical poets in the previous quote, captures is how close Berger’s thoughts are to his personality: his feelings, thoughts and identity are one – he lives them, like the artist he is. There is no separation between man and idea. This is the opposite to most academic writing, which is depersonalized; and consciously so with its jargon and style codes that makes the presentation somewhat anonymous. The first person particular is turned into the third person universal. Such a textbook style is believed to be objective. In reality it camouflages individual prejudices, and the influence of the governing ideology (or paradigm). As Dyer notes a style like Berger’s can alienate, and is therefore high risk, like an aggressive person at a dinner party; which so much university life resembles. People react to the style, which colours they view of its content; which they often reject, usually out of hand.[xxii] But it goes deeper than this, and may explain Rée’s, and the secondary sources on which he relies, reaction to Schopenhauer: they mistake a very personal commitment to the ideas with the belief that the ideas themselves are personal ones. Someone so close to their ideas, that they live and breathe them, cannot be objective; or so it is believed. But it goes deeper again, and you get a sense of it in Rée: these ideas must be about the individual who thinks them, they cannot be concerned with the wider world. How wrong can you be! There is no necessary connection between the depth of commitment to an idea and its objectivity. For some people the greater they live their ideas the more keen they will be to ensure their purity from subjective bias; they will be more objective precisely because of the closeness to their thought. Also, these individuals, by a quirk of fate, will often be more interested in the outside world than their own individuality; their individual concerns. I think Schopenhauer, Berger, Chomsky and Gellner are all examples of this temperament. However, what I am not saying is that they are completely objective. They cannot be; because all thought involves individual selection and bias. The difference here is that they recognize it, and try to compensate through an intellectual honesty. On the other hand, if you are not close to your ideas, and don’t care about them overly much, using them as a mechanism for publication or promotion, the importance of their actual concern declines: it doesn’t matter if you follow Heidegger or William James. They become just a tool, or a fad, or simply a product; off the peg goods, the lingerie, a shop assistant sells in Marks and Spencer. One consequence is that your thoughts will be more open to fashion and ideological bias, because those fashions will be accepted in the same way as the ideas themselves: intellectual stuff that is external to your personality; and which will be used for a variety of purposes. There will be nothing intrinsically important about them. Yes you will be attached to these ideas, like we are to our cars and TV screens; but you won’t feel them, at least not that much; not like the teddy bear we cried over when we were hardly kids. But let’s shift from academics to ourselves, to make the point less abstractly. Think of how we pass exams. How we learn all those facts and figures that touch us not at all; and how quickly we forget them afterwards. Does it matter if the subject is 19th century America or 14th century Italy? For most people the historical period, its content and intrinsic interest, is not important at all: passing the exam is what counts. John A. Hall in his biography of Ernest Gellner notes how much of academic life is mere fashion; movements don’t end because they are proved wrong, but because the topic has become boring; or been replaced by a newer, more glitzy model….[xxiii] If you don’t care about a thing you won’t take much of an interest in it. Therefore you won’t think too deeply about it; and will be prone to follow the conventional wisdom. We all do it. We have to. Imagine the amount of work to find the truth behind every story we read in the newspaper. These tendencies are probably worse in the subject areas where is a greater proportion of speculation to the acquisition of facts, worse in philosophy than history. For the world of fact forces a greater attention to detail and external reality; and is a little less prone, perhaps, to one’s own (that is, fashion’s) thoughts. There is another reason.
In his book on Schopenhauer Christopher Janaway refers to Bryan Magee’s “sometimes idiosyncratic account” of the philosopher. Here is another book that is highly personal: Magee lives Schopenhauer’s ideas. This is what he has to say about academics:
If we want to acquire a deeper understanding of the world, then, we have somehow to find a way of getting under the outer skin of our direct experience. The mystery lies in what is, and it is into our direct perceptions of what is that we need to dig. Many if not most philosophers have regarded the actual as banal, and concepts as much more interesting – they have seen our individual perceptions and experiences as trivial, concepts as somehow ‘higher’ – and have therefore tried to deepen our understanding of the world by examining concepts. In doing this they are like a man who empties a box so as to be able to look inside and see what is in it. In Schopenhauer’s view it is a characteristic defect of the academic type of person that he tries to live his life and relate to reality, including other people, much too much in terms of concepts – by contrast with the man in the street, or the administrator, or the man of action, or the artistic type of person, all of whom live more in terms of spontaneous response to the uniquely specific, and thus more in terms of direct experience. The most radical personal implications for intellectuals of all kinds follow from the fact that the value of what comes out of any valid process of reasoning is comprised of the validity and quality of the experiences, perceptions and judgements from which it begins. If these are defective or weak, no amount of skill in the handling of concepts, or virtuosity in argument, can increase their substance. Yet fine perception calls for a high degree of sensibility, and penetrating judgement calls for independence of mind, and the conjunction of these characteristics is rarer than intellectual ability – indeed, not many intellectually able people have it, not even among the ranks of philosophers; for, as Geoffrey Warnock has recently said: ‘Philosophers tend very much to take up the subject in the state in which they find it, and to swim contentedly along in the way the stream is going.’ Here lies the key to the fact that so many brilliant people, in universities and elsewhere, produce little or nothing that is of lasting value. They may have high IQs, remarkable powers of reasoning, and a genuine devotion to their work, but if the material with which they start out is unremarkable – if they perceptions lack subtlety, depth, or above all authentic independence (for instance, if their judgements are too influenced by the intellectual fashions prevailing in their professions) – no amount of cleverness, ingenuity or dedication can transubstantiate it. In creative thought, as in creative art, the quality of the original material is most of the story, and in determining this it is personal originality and independence, insight and imagination that count, not intellectual power – though intellectual power certainly comes into what the individual then does with the material. Even so, technique, for all its usefulness, is auxiliary, and many are the masters of technique who have little to say. Such people tend honestly to overrate the importance of technique, not only because it is what they can do, and do well, but because it is what they can improve at, and what they can teach. Some may be great teachers; yet however able they are they will have no original contribution of much lasting significance to make to the subject. And they will often be baffled as to why this is so, especially when they see people whom they know to be both less clever and less technically proficient than themselves producing work which is better.
According to Janaway, Schopenhauer’s system is “creaky”, but his individual insights are marvellous… Is it any wonder that academic philosophers will concentrate on the former rather than the latter; and dismiss the whole lot because of those weaknesses; exemplified by Rée? But there is a wider problem. In order to have the insights that Magee mentions one has to live close to the material. It will be part of one’s personality; that in turn will be reflected in the finished work.[xxiv] There’s Arthur smiling and scowling at us from his extended sentences! If one studies art or literature this highly personal content can we explained away, or incorporated into a wider synthesis; to become a symbol or source data for a biography; the latter often used for the explanation of the creative process. That is, the personality is accepted only when it can be used for something else; or be transformed into an academic discourse. But what happens to the subject you specialize in, and which your treat “objectively”, following all the rules of good academic conduct, when you come across a large character, a sort of Falstaff, that is imminent in the very work itself. No longer are you studying just a philosophy, but you are engaging with a life. Wouldn’t there a tendency to be repelled by it, especially if the wider context makes it easy to do so?[xxv] In his wonderful autobiography[xxvi] Bryan Magee talks of his friendship with Karl Popper, and the intense conversations they would have; sometimes close to physical violence; so intently did Popper live his ideas. Magee makes an acute point about this: he was seeing someone in the actual process of working out his thoughts; he was experiencing the creative act itself. And in a small way he could influence it; because the ideas are still molten, yet to be fixed and fully formed they were open to suggestion. Magee, because of his character, was electrified by these encounters; in part because they were creative moments for himself. The work and person are fused, out of which comes a creative energy; that others, who are receptive, can pick up. Is this the reason, rather than his particular ideas, and his lengthy discussions on art, for the influence of Schopenhauer on so many artists, composers and writers? They are responding to the energy that his personality releases on the page: for them he is both explicator and galvaniser.[xxvii] If you are not an artist, or an original thinker, just a clerk with an orderly filing cabinet, wouldn’t you be a little unsettled by this? At the very least you may seek to avoid it; for it breaks all the rules of good liberal conduct. Think of Dyer’s comments above; and here his conclusion:
While other critics may have a higher ‘academic’ standing, there are few whose influence has been considerable as Berger’s and tributes to his capacity to stimulate appear in any number of art books. There is also the widespread and largely silent gratitude of those like Adam Hochschild for whom Berger was, simply, the first person to explain why so much art history was so boring or those for whom a visit to an art gallery took on a new, urgent meaning after reading him. (my emphasis)
Schopenhauer is a creator of insights; he widens our perceptions; he makes us look better and harder at that banal world around us; and he shows the lifelessness of so many ideas held by the great and the good…[xxviii] He injects us with an intellectual excitement; and this is more important than the quality of his own ideas, or even those marvellous insights, wonderful as they are.[xxix] They stimulate, create an urgency, which forces us, if we respond, to think and to find out more; and ultimately to question him ourselves. Nietzsche was Schopenhauer’s greatest disciple because he incorporated the character of the writings into his own thinking; which eventually allowed him to reject his master’s ideas. However, if your life is destined not be original, not so much the artist, as the art historian, such a body of work will not appeal; for it will have too much experience, too much character; which cannot be contained within your neat categories; he will be too big and unruly for that semi-detached house in the suburbs. Instead we will turn to others who hold similar views, but who are more fashionably dressed, modest, and discretely sociable. A final image: princess Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s soirée at the beginning of War and Peace.
… a look of anxiety and dismay, as at the sight of something too huge and out of place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. He was indeed rather bigger than the other men in the room, but her dismay could only have reference to the clever, though diffident and at the same time observant and natural expression which distinguished him from everyone else in the drawing-room.
…just then Anna Pavlovna, who had been keeping an eye on that dreadful young man, noticed that he was talking too loudly and heatedly with the abbé, and hurried to the rescue. Pierre had managed to start a conversation with the abbé about the balance of power, and the abbé, evidently interested by the young man’s ingenuous fervour, was dilating at length on his pet theory. Both of them were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, and Anna Pavlovna did not like it…
…Anna Pavlovna came up and, giving Pierre a stern glance, asked the Italian how he stood on the Russian climate.
The prince is too big for such a polite party. He overflows the codes of civility; too natural when he should be ironic; he stands out when he should fit in… He is attractive to some, of course, but the rules of the game demand his silence. Shut up Pierre! And he does.
[i] First live, then philosophize.
[ii] Philosophy, thou goest poor and nude!
[v] The above quote from Schopenhauer easily demonstrates that he didn’t think time and space were illusions. But go back to the Westminster Review: it assumes Kant believed the phenomenal world was also an illusion; a view I assume this reviewer endorses (why quote it otherwise? He could easily make a distinction between the two philosophers). But to say that we perceive the world in a certain way, because of how our minds are constructed, isn’t to say we live in a perpetual fantasy; just that we have a limited perspective. It is the same with our senses. John Locke, in the key empiricist text, which I assume would have been Utilitarian England’s handbook, made the distinction between the primary and secondary qualities in objects. The former belongs intrinsically to them; the latter are the effects these qualities produce in us; and are dependent upon the constitution of our senses. He makes a comparison with the natural world:
‘…the idea of Heat, or Light, which we receive by our Eyes, or touch from the Sun, are commonly thought real Qualities, existing in the Sun, and something more than mere Powers in it. But when we consider the Sun, in reference to Wax, which it melts or blanches, we look upon the Whiteness and Softness produced in the Wax, not as Qualities in the Sun, but Effects produced by powers in it: Whereas, if rightly considered, these Qualities of Light and Warmth which are Perceptions in me when I am warmed, or enlightened by the Sun, are no otherwise in the Sun, than the changes made in the Wax, when it is blanched or melted, are in the Sun…. ‘(An Essay concerning Human Understanding)
Later, Locke writes that our idea of substance is “supposition”; its made in the mind out of our sense data (or through Reflection upon the ideas arising from our senses):
“That all our Ideas of the several sorts of Substances, are nothing but Collections of simple Ideas, with a Supposition of something, to which they belong, and in which they subsist; though of this supposed something, we no clear distinct Idea at all.”
Because the incoming data is modified by our senses it doesn’t follow that the original object is an illusion. Likewise, because our mind modifies the sense data it doesn’t mean that we live inside Charlie Wonka’s chocolate factory. Because we can’t see our consciousness, how it makes and creates our mental world, how it gives shape and duration to our perceptions, it doesn’t follow it doesn’t exist. It is odd that Rée should quote an exposition that is so clearly wrong. He knows little of Schopenhauer. How much does he know of Kant?
[vi] A quote from Schopenhauer is apposite:
‘The reader who has got as far as the preface and is put off by that, has paid money for the book, and wants to know how he is to be compensated. My last refuge now is to remind him that he knows of various ways of using a book without precisely reading it. It can, like many other another, fill a gap in his library, where, neatly bound, it is sure to look well. Or he can lay it on the dressing-table or tea-table of his learned lady friend. Or finally he can review it; this is assuredly the best course of all, and the one I specially advise.’ (The World as Will and Representation Vol I)
[vii] One possible explanation is the hunger for meaning in most intellectuals. And it appears that Rée is no exception; thus his comment about wanting to “cling onto the will to live”. In a backhanded way he accepts Schopenhauer’s main philosophical point, the existence of a will, but then goes on to give his own meaning to it! Though typically he mixes up three distinct things: the metaphysical Will, our own will, and our psychology. We cannot cling to the sap in the tree; nor can we cling to the energy inside us. However, we do have the option of embracing our emotions and feelings, and stimulating them; we can also choose ascetic withdrawal. But note, this is a very different discussion, about ethics and personal psychology, to that of the world’s origins.
[viii] And there are clear antecedents in the British empiricist tradition. John Locke could almost be describing Schopenhauer here:
‘That Desire is a state of uneasiness, every one who reflects on himself, will quickly find. Who is there, that has not felt in Desire, what the Wise-man says of Hope, (which is not much different from it) that it being deferr’d makes the Heart sick, and that still proportionable to the greatness of the Desire, which sometimes raises the uneasiness to that pitch, that it makes People cry out, Give me Children, give the thing desir’d, or I die? Life it self, and all its Enjoyments, is a burden cannot be born under the lasting and unremoved pressure of such an uneasiness.’
For Locke uneasiness is the source of all our actions: it is the motive force of our will. Most of the successive moments of our lives will contain some unsettledness, we have few extended moments of complete ease; and without which there would be no human achievement; for it propels us to think, to act and to create.
[ix] From Goethe’s Faust.
[x] Of course we can extend this into everyday life, in which case it becomes merely unconsciousness action; the normal run of everyone’s lives.
[xi] But then maybe Rée is not a natural philosopher; and finds it difficult to get past his own self. His mind perhaps “is destined to know things only in so far as they serve as the motives of such a will, not to fathom them or to comprehend their true inner essence.”
[xii] Though recently this appears to be changing; particularly through the work of Christopher Janaway; under whose auspices a new edition of The World as Will and Representation is to be published. Everything is relative, of course: just about everybody is buried under a mountain range of research papers. In his short book on Schopenhauer, for the Past Masters series, Janaway calls his status “somewhat enigmatic.” He goes on:
He is recognized as a profound and erudite thinker, but he is not what one would call a philosopher’s philosopher. Philosophical specialists may enjoy his marvellous style and find his ideas provocative, but they do not usually model themselves on him: to someone schooled on Kant or Aristotle, he is apt to come over as too wayward and too ‘literary’.
This is one explanation, but it cannot be the only one: it would rule out Nietzsche.
[xiii] This may explain Rée, who finds in ridicule the easiest solution to this particular problem.
[xiv] See the David Pears’ introductory book on Wittgenstein. I counted three references to Schopenhauer.
· His belief that the origin of philosophy is a sense of wonder about the world.
· “He took much of the framework of the Tractatus from Kant through Schopenhauer, whom he had read and admired…”
· “Here again many of the ideas are Schopenhauer’s, but, though Wittgenstein begins to use them in his own way, his line of thought is not fully worked out.”
There is no attempt to investigate this any further.
In Anthony Kenny’s introduction to Wittgenstein is there only one reference:
“As a youth he had read Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, and had been impressed by the idealist philosophy of that work. Now he read Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics and through it became acquainted with Gottlob Frege’s realist philosophy of mathematics. Under this influence he gradually abandoned his early belief in philosophical idealism.”
This is wrong in a number of places. As Pears notes, and Magee outlines in great detail, Wittgenstein did not abandon this philosophy. Also, the reference to Idealism is at least questionable. Schopenhauer is often mistaken for a German Idealist philosopher. However, while there is certainly some overlap, he spent his life attacking these philosophers, seeing them as a distortion and misrepresentation of his beloved Kant.
[xv] And whose own philosophies stand outside history. In the first there is a universal correspondence between language and reality. In the second, the world is made up of closed language communities. For extensive discussion see Gellner’s The Language of Solitude. For Gellner, the first theory universalizes the modern epistemological worldview; while the second, rejecting the first theory as the error in philosophical thinking, returns us to the pre-modern world of magic and primitive religion (and ignores completely the impact of modern science). In neither case is there a sense of how the world is changing; and the difference between our scientific-industrial society and the agrarian communities; which it has supplanted.
[xviii] See Warnock’s comments below, about how new philosophers tend to pick up what is fashionable in the field, and carry it along. This will reinforce the tendency to stick too closely to tradition, which is never seriously re-evaluated; until someone like Chomsky appears. Thus the enormous impact of his rehabilitation of rationalism, within an Anglo-American field that was dominated by an empiricist mindset.
A related issue: philosophers will tend to study those who most influence other philosophers. Magee notices this in his autobiography: academics usually spend more time on the secondary sources than on the original philosopher themselves. Schopenhauer, outside the philosophical community during his lifetime, was immediately at a disadvantage – he influenced hardly any of his contemporaries. He is therefore in the position of always having to catch up; and not quite making it.
[xix] Academics don’t like abuse. See John A. Hall’s recent biography of Ernest Gellner, where there are repeated references to attempts by editors to tone down his manuscripts. His first book, Words and Things, an assault on linguistic philosophy, and which named names, often very directly, was not reviewed in Mind. To bury it, no doubt. Though the editor, Gilbert Ryle, made the mistake of explaining this to the publisher. It became a cause célèbre.
[xxi] One of the most curious aspects of the postmodern turn in academia is the attempt to recreate the subtlety and flexibility of the creative artist in jargon and bureaucratic prose. How dismal the results! Too often they are like ballet dancers in Wellington boots. See Is There Beauty in Hegel? for more comment.
One obvious weakness, that doesn’t seem to be noticed, is that a good deal of the subjective searching after meaning, the analysis of one’s own thoughts to an infinite regress, and the quotation from Marx, Freud, Lacan and the rest, is the regurgitation of other people’s ideas; and the application of a formula. That is the very opposite to creative insight. See Bryan Magee’s quote below for an acute commentary.
Though there are other effects too: on art and literature themselves. It is noticeable how much of art itself has become academic: the rise of the museum piece as art installation, and the popularity of conceptual art over the last decades… With the expansion of the university system, and its dominating influence on the field, is it any wonder that it has changed the nature of its subject? It may also account for changes in literature; particularly its concentration on the quality of the language; at the expense of the subject matter. Elif Batuman in the LRB discusses the high quality of the prose that has come out of decades of creative writing courses. However, at the same time, she says much of this work is disappointing. Why should this be so? Magee gives the answer: language is only part of the creative art; it is just the writer’s technique; and therefore relatively unimportant. See The Triumph of Literary Politics Over Honest Criticism for further comment.
[xxii] Dyer’s asks a pertinent question:
‘…we must guard against objections to a tone or manner deflecting us from the sense of what is being said. Sometimes a response articulates itself as a critical judgement almost too easily and then serves as an obstruction to further responsiveness. The attraction of such an impulse is that it allows us to condemn without calling ourselves into question – and this is its danger. If we are embarrassed by Berger’s ‘delivery’ or ‘style’, which for all its ‘ponderousness’ is frank and direct, should we not consider the way in which we are so at home and at our ease with the flashy vacuity of much contemporary journalism?’
[xxiii] There is an interesting consequence to Hall’s observation: the confidence of the prevailing intellectual fashion that it has super-ceded its predecessor is almost certainly misplaced. Unlike science, all that theoretical detritus from the past may actually be more relevant and more powerful than its contemporary rivals.
[xxiv] Dyer shows this very clearly. Berger’s thought is a physical strain; as much bodily as mental. It seems he is actually giving birth. And this is not just a metaphor. No, it is from his very body that the ideas are emerging…. Think of Magee’s quote, and how the quality of the insight depends on the perceptions and one’s general sensibility. These attributes are much closer to our senses and our unconscious; the latter you could argue hardly mental at all (this was Freud’s biggest mistake – see Trauma (II) In our Fingernails for more discussion.)
[xxv] See the other reasons for Schopenhauer’s disregard.
[xxviii] Here is an experiment for you: read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and immediately after read her Testament of Experience. The former is rightly a classic; and is full of feeling and perception. The latter reads more like the proceedings of an international conference; so full is it of the then current progressive concerns. In short, it contains too many of other people’s ideas and not enough of her own perceptions. The first book is alive; the second dead.
[xxix] In his biography Hall writes of how Gellner used to lecture: rarely with notes, he would rework through his material at the lectern. Each lecture is thus a creative act; the audience responding both to the ideas and the stimulation of the performance itself. Of course, some didn’t like it.