THE ultimate miserabalist
Arthur Schopenhauer, it must be said, is a very pessimistic philosopher, gloomy in the extreme, whose vision of human existence can only be labelled ultra-miserabalist. (No wonder he was on André Breton’s “Ne lisez pas” list.) If Leibnitz described this world as the best of all possible worlds, Schopenhauer describes it as the worst. The hell that is the world begins with simple life-forms which prey on one another for their own nourishment and graduates up the ladder of life through the animal kingdom to man. The dramas that wild-life programmers are so keen to present of life on the African plains, where gazelles and wildebeest are torn apart by wild dogs and hyenas, who begin eating them before they have even expired, is typical of everywhere in the natural world, which in the end also includes humans, although they, perhaps, have developed a more civilised framework in which tear one another apart. Sartre’s words, “Hell is other people.” could have been lifted straight out of Schopenhauer’s World As Will And Representation, except that Schopenhauer laid it on much more thickly and with much more relish. Happiness is illusory; it exists only in the past or future; desire always begets disenchantment once its object is achieved; pain is much more real than pleasure; disappointment always attends the attainment of our ends in life. If it weren’t for the fact that we are driven by a blind, unconscious will to live, we would all take our own lives tomorrow, because, of course, it is better not to have been born than live this life of interminable suffering and despair. And yet, for all the pessimism which saturates his work, Schopenhauer can have a tonic effect on his readers by his very rejection of a shallow optimistic world-view and in the way he confronts so much complacency. That being said, I do find his vision very one-sided. It doesn’t jell with my own experience, which is that of alternating periods of contrasting moods and emotions, none of which permanently dominates any of the others. Furthermore, his outlook on the world is supported and justified by what I think is a dubious metaphysical position. Reality is like this because this is what it is in the deep depths of itself and it has nothing to do with Schopenhauer’s own personal psychology. (That bit goes without saying.)
So what is this metaphysical position that Schopenhauer is so eager to sell us – often with brilliant panache, but no less often ‘re-enforced’ by the outmoded biology and anthropology - not to mention many of the exploded prejudices - of the mid-nineteenth Century? This, don’t forget, was before Darwin had published his Origin Of Species and certainly before Marx or Nietzsche were ever heard of? Schopenhauer’s bête noire was none other than Hegel, but if only he had imbibed some of Hegel’s more dynamic developmental perspective and seen things in a more ‘relativist’ way, he might have avoided quite a few pitfalls.
So where to begin with Schopenhauer’s metaphysics? Well, perhaps we should begin with Kant’s distinction between phenomena and the unknowable thing-in-itself. Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason was greatly admired by Schopenhauer, who largely agreed with its conclusions and its dismantling of metaphysics, but he could not accept the ultimate implications (Nor could Kant for that matter.) relating to the negative boundary line Kant drew in that work between things you can know and things you cannot know, a boundary line which discourages us from looking any further into the ultimate nature of things. Schopenhauer shares a common ground with his bête noire Hegel here, who also pretended to know what lay behind empirical phenomena – namely spirit. Personally, I would probably side with Kant and Wittgenstein, especially in regard to the way the latter refined Kant’s position by bringing the limitations of language into the equation. “We get to the boundary of language, which stops us asking further questions. We don’t get to the bottom of things, but reach a point where we can go no further, where we cannot ask further questions.” One of the reasons I side with Kant and Wittgenstein is that I prefer to keep questions regarding the ultimate nature of the world open, rather than close them down with metaphysical dogmas that seem to have a suspicious affinity with religion.
Schopenhauer attempts to fill the ‘lacuna’ at the heart of Kant’s philosophy with the idea that the ‘thing-in’itself’, which Kant said was unknowable, was something called Will. This was blind Will which underlay everything else in existence. Since he was also a self-declared philosophical idealist, I assume he meant that blind Will lay behind our perceptions of the world, rather than any actual independent world outside of us; this world presumably does not exist outside of our perception of it. Bishop Berkeley obviously thought in a similar way as his formulation of it in “To be is to be perceived” makes fairly clear.
It is not for me to argue with this metaphysical viewpoint, since, as far as I can see, it has just as much going for it as any of its alternatives, none of which can be established by argument one way or the other. I suspect we will always be condemned to grope around in the dark when it comes to determining the ultimate nature of things, and long may it be the case. (Metaphysics, after all, is the province of the Imagination rather than Reason, which is why it has a place in poetry.) Keats’s own notions concerning Negative Capability revolve round the idea that we should reject this constant drive towards certainty and become much more open to ‘the penetralium of mystery’ at the heart of the world. Keats’s spirit here is more akin to Kant’s in the Critique Of Pure Reason, although Kant did later go back on his position by bringing the ‘moral order’ into the equation, which he believed proved God existed in spite of all his earlier efforts to show that it couldn’t be proved one way or the other.
For Schopenhauer, blind Will is behind the world of representation, phenomena and perception. I am not 100% sure what Will could mean here (Drive? Impulse?), since I have always associated it with something voluntary and therefore born of consciousness – as in a conscious decision to do something and the will to carry it out. Schopenhauer’s Will is completely blind and unconscious, it has no thoughts of its own, but it has created consciousness to do its thinking for it. The impulse behind it is self-preservation in the unrelenting struggle for survival between individuals who are possessed of the self-same Will. Forgetting the actual idealist metaphysics involved, it is obvious to me that Schopenhauer has hit upon a very important insight here regarding the way ‘matter’ organises itself from its very simplest – sub-atomic? - forms into highly complex biological species and further – into ourselves. A reductionist would explain the complex forms purely in terms of the simplest ‘building-blocks’, i.e. the ‘higher’ and more evolved in terms of the ‘lower’ and less evolved. Schopenhauer’s schema allows us at least to think in terms of a shared something or other which they both have – namely Will – which organises ‘matter’ in both ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms.
This shared ‘something or other’, according to Schopenhauer, is blind and gropes in the dark to preserve itself. The trouble is, can we actually access this blind, unconscious Will, become conscious of it and know it? Schopenhauer thinks we can, because we are it and we have only to look inside ourselves to encounter it. However, I would argue that being and knowing belong to completely different realms in relation our own inner workings. Being after all, as Hegel recognised, has no determinate characteristics, so how can we ‘know’ anything’s being beyond its appearances, still less talk about it? Surely we come back to Kant’s “unknowable thing-in-itself” in consciousness’s own efforts to know whatever is beneath itself and render it conscious. It is analogous to Freud – who was very influenced by Schopenhauer – recognising that the conscious part of the psyche can never become directly conscious of its own unconscious underpinnings. And Freud was only talking about the psyche, not about the metaphysical constitution of the world. So how much further has Schopenhauer got than Kant himself had got before him in plumbing the depths of the ‘unknowable thing-in-itself’? I would say, no further at all. He may believe that he can surmise from the empirical evidence of the way the world, or the self, behaves but the fact that he cannot have direct access to it means that he cannot know it at all with absolute certainty. He is as much in the dark about it as Kant.
Notwithstanding my many doubts, Schopenhauer is a thinker who is well worth reading for his many valuable insights. His pessimism is only questionable because he takes it to such extremes and refuses to see the world from more than one highly jaundiced angle. That it should lead to an ascetic denial of the world seems to me to be a logical consequence of this way of thinking, as does his embrace of the ascetic strains within Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism – as opposed to the worldliness he purported to find in both Judaism and Islam – with the exception of Sufism. None of these flaws invalidate what may be insightful in his work. It is just that, like Nietzsche, I find myself in complete opposition to his damning of life and ascetic denial of the world - despite recognising that awful things happen in it.
Finally, perhaps it is appropriate to end with Schopenhauer’s approach to the subject of death. He says, for instance, that death is both the purpose and meaning of life. I dispute this. For me the meaning of life at the end of the day is the fact that we’ve lived it, and, if possible, to the full - drunk it to the dregs, as it were. That I think is what makes it worth living, and worth having lived even in the face of death. As for death itself and what happens after, well, it’s a question-mark, isn’t it? Nothing more; nothing less. In short, another Kantian "unknowable thing-in-itself". And because of that, yer pays yer money and yer takes yer chances. As in life, there are no guarantees one way or the other. In the end, it’s a question of casting the die and trusting to luck. Everything else is in the lap of the gods.