Sunday, July 25, 2010

Struggling with Schopenhauer 4

Some basics about his philosophy

I always find it very hard to start into writing an account of any thinker, be he or she a philosopher, a theologian, a scientist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a poet, a novelist or whatever. However, the best strategy for a blog is simply to start anyway as if you were introducing the subject to a friend. Having read an introduction to his work from Bertrand Russell, Bryan Magee, Roger Scruton and Irvin Yalom the following are the points that spring to mind.

Firstly, unlike the majority of philosophers, Schopenhauer, who lived from 1788 till 1860, was very much a pessimist. Hence, you know immediately he’s not going to be writing some drivel about Utopia or offering any easy or facile answers. In fact, to come to grips with his philosophy you will have to work hard as every sentence has to be thought over and worked out logically. Also an insight into Kant’s philosophy, at least the rudimentary points thereof, is a sine qua non as much of Schopenhauer’s work is a working out and extension of the former’s thoughts.

If you are a religious sort and somewhat suspect of atheists, then don’t read Schopenhauer as you simply won’t like him. He was an unabashed and avowed atheist like Nietzsche and Freud after him. In fact these two loved Schopenhauer’s work and were intimately acquainted with it. It could be said, indeed, that they borrowed not a few ideas from the crotchety old German philosopher.

Again, he is a very widely read and deeply acute intellectual who prefigured in his work insights like repression and the unconscious that we find in Freud. Roger Scruton calls him one of the last great systematic philosophers:

Many historical philosophers are known for their speculative systems, in which a complete account of reality is promised or attempted. Hegel is one of the most accomplished of the system builders, though his close rival Schopenhauer is equally ambitious and rather more agreeable to read. Modern philosophers are not system builders in general. (Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, Manderin, 1996, p. 2)

Scruton’s point put my mind at ease, and indeed stimulated my interest as I love systematisers, those rare beings who try to make sense of the totality of things, of reality in total. They are ambitious and passionate writers, and then the fact that Schopenhauer was offering no panacea or easy way through difficult problems also whetted my appetite for this very rudimentary study of this great philosopher.

Schopenhauer could speak German, English and French fluently and obviously Latin and Greek, the languages of learning in those days, and managed to ten languages in all by the time he died. I also read somewhere in my research that he was wont to write his marginal notes in the language of the text he was then reading.

Another fact about this great philosopher heartened me and that is the fact that you will find absolutely no nationalism in his work at all – not a hint. He had no time for causes other than his own deep inner searchings of his mind. Bertrand Russell asserts that his appeal has always been less to professional philosophers than to artistic and literary people who are searching for some philosophy to underpin their intellectual and artistic pursuits. (See A History of Western Philosophy, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1979, p. 722) However, I feel that since then, with the researches of such scholars and intellectuals like Bryan Magee into his work he has been more widely appreciated.

His Emphasis on Will

Interestingly enough his emphasis is mainly on what he calls the will and this in itself is characteristic of much of nineteenth century philosophy. Being the pessimist that he was, with a belief in the centrality of the tragedy to the very essence of life, it will be no surprise to any of his readers to find that for Schopenhauer that the will is ethically evil. However, Russell does point out that while this was so it was metaphysically fundamental to Schopenhauer’s system, while marvelling at such an amazing opposition which he say only a pessimist could come up with. (See Russell, ibid., p. 722)


Schopenhauer names three great influences on his work, viz., Immanuel Kant, Plato and The Upanishads. These could be seen as representing kindred systems, or at least offering each offers a systematic way to interpret reality as a whole. Russell disputes how much of an influence Plato had on him while Magee argues soundly that Schopenhauer had well worked out his own system by sheer reason before he discovered the philosophies of the East in Hinduism and Buddhism. The fact that these philosophies mirrored his own findings by reason encouraged him to read them more and more. In fact our man had two busts in his study – one of Kant and one of the Buddha.

Russell sees the work of Schopenhauer as being “tired and valetudinarian,” as valuing quietism and sheer inaction rather than attempting to reform society. (See Russell, ibid., 722) Yet, one could hardly expect anything else from a pessimist and one who believed that the essential nature of life was tragic anyway. A pessimist would see all efforts at reform as futile anyway. However, his observation is a correct and worthwhile one.

Prickly and Arrogant

That Schopenhauer was prickly and arrogant no one who knew him would attempt to deny, not even his mother who knew her son only too well. He was as prickly and as arrogant intellectually as he was temperamentally. He had quarrels with most of his professors. In Berlin in 1811 he heard Fichte lecture, but went on to despise him as a fraud and a charlatan. When he became a privatdozent at Berlin University in 1819 at the age of 31 he conceitedly put his lecture on at the same time as Hegel’s because he despised this man’s work so much. He also believed that the latter, like Fichte, was a charlatan and a fraud who merely used language to mystify their hearers rather than to clarify the thinking of the audience. Needless to say no one turned up at Schopenhauer’s lecture according to most of my sources, while one mentioned that a handful turned up while Hegel’s lecture hall was packed out. Schopenhauer gave up lecturing on the spot and began to study as a private philosopher from then on. This strong-willed man would be beholden to no one and never to any institution. Once again one has to admire his balls as the Americans put it; respect his deep belief in his own ability; his refusal to compromise his thinking or water it down in anyway; his ability to take all the flack and criticism that would go with such strong views. As Russell puts it, after this rather embarrassing occurrence, he settled down to the life of an old bachelor in Frankfurt.

I will finish with a few unrelated but interesting points which highlight his eccentricity which at this remove is nothing short of delightful, though I should not like to share a table with such a misanthropist as Schopenhauer. He always kept a poodle, which he called Atman (or Atma) which means “World-Soul) and he was wont to talk to it in public. He also walked for two hours every day, played the flute religiously, swam in the cold Main river daily all year round, read The London Times, smoked a long pipe, and even hired correspondents to hunt up evidence of his fame and reputation. It is not surprising either to find that he was anti-democratic and was vehemently opposed to the 1848 revolution – given his merchant background, how could we be surprised?

There is enough for anyone to mull over above by way of a very short introduction to his thought. I will have to struggle some more with him before I go further.

Above a picture of the young Arthur Schopenhauer at Venice. 

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