Schopenhauer – Primacy of the Will in Self-Consciousness

This is an extract from chapter XIX of Schopenhauer's 'World as Will and Representation, vol. 2'.
By employing his previously-sanctioned tenet that the Will is the fundamental thing-in-itself of the universe, he here shows the intellect as 'the will's mere tool'. He thereby anticipates such ideas as 'confirmation bias' and the birth pangs associated with Kuhnian Paradigm Shifts – as well as properly delivering to the world the notion of the subconscious and how it unwittingly affects our behaviour and thinking.


morality is directly opposed to the natural will, which in itself is absolutely egoistic … the will is what is real and essential in man, whereas the intellect is only the secondary, the conditioned, and the produced …

Love and hatred entirely falsify our judgement; in our enemies we see nothing but shortcomings, in our favourites nothing but merits and good points, and even their defects seem amiable to us. Our advantage, of whatever kind it may be, exercises a similar secret power over our judgement; what is in agreement with it at once seems to us fair, just, and reasonable; what runs counter to it is presented to us in all seriousness as unjust and outrageous, or inexpedient and absurd. Hence so many prejudices of social position, rank, profession, nationality, sect, and religion. A hypothesis, conceived and formed, makes us lynx-eyed for everything that confirms it, and blind to everything that contradicts it. What is opposed to our party, our plan, our wish, or our hope often cannot possibly be grasped and comprehended by us, whereas it is clear to the eyes of everyone else; on the other hand, what is favourable to these leaps to our eyes from afar. What opposes the heart is not admitted by the head. All through life we cling to many errors, and take care never to examine their ground, merely from a fear, of which we ourselves are unconscious, of possibly making the discovery that we have so long and so often believed and maintained what is false. Thus is our intellect daily befooled and corrupted by the deceptions of inclination and liking. This has been finely expressed by Bacon in the following words: [“The intellect is no light that would burn dry (without oil), but receives its supply from the will and from the passions; and this produces knowledge according as we desire to have it. For man prefers most of all to believe what he would like to. Passion influences and infects the intellect in innumerable ways that are sometimes imperceptible.”] (Novum Organum, I, 49) Obviously, it is also this that opposes all new fundamental views in the sciences and all refutations of sanctioned errors; for no one will readily see the correctness of that which convicts him of incredible want of thought. From this alone can be explained the fact that the truths of Goethe’s colour theory, so clear and simple, are still denied by the physicists; and thus even he had to learn from experience how much more difficult is the position of one who promises people instruction rather than entertainment. It is therefore much more fortunate to have been born a poet than a philosopher. On the other hand, the more obstinately an error has been held, the more mortifying does the convincing proof subsequently become. With a system that is overthrown, as with a beaten army, the most prudent is he who runs away from it first.

A trifling and ridiculous, but striking example of the mysterious and immediate power exercised by the will over the intellect is that, when doing accounts, we make mistakes more frequently to our advantage than to our disadvantage, and this indeed without the least intention of dishonesty, but merely through the unconscious tendency to diminish our debit and increase our credit.

Finally, the fact is also relevant here that, in the case when any advice is to be given, the slightest aim or purpose in the adviser generally outweighs his insight, however great this may be. Therefore we dare not assume that he speaks from insight when we suspect intention. How little absolute sincerity is to be expected, even from persons otherwise honest, whenever their interest in any way bears on a matter, can be judged from the fact that we so often deceive ourselves where hope bribes us, or fear befools us, or suspicion torments us, or vanity flatters us, or a hypothesis infatuates and blinds us, or a small purpose close at hand interferes with one greater but more distant. In these we see the direct, unconscious, and disadvantageous influence of the will on knowledge. Accordingly it ought not to surprise us if, when advice is asked, the will of the person asked immediately dictates the answer, even before the question could penetrate to the forum of his judgement.

Here I wish to point out in a word what is fully discussed in the following book, namely that the most perfect knowledge, the purely objective apprehension of the world, that is, the apprehension of the genius, is conditioned by a silencing of the will so profound that, so long as it lasts, even the individuality disappears from consciousness, and the man remains pure subject of knowing, which is the correlative of the Idea.

The disturbing influence of the will on the intellect, as all these phenomena prove, and, on the other hand, the intellect’s frailty and feebleness, by virtue of which it is incapable of operating correctly whenever the will is in any way set in motion, give us yet another proof that the will is the radical part of our real nature, and acts with original force, whereas the intellect, as something adventitious and in many ways conditioned, can act only in a secondary and conditional manner.

There is no immediate disturbance of the will by knowledge, corresponding to the disturbance and clouding of knowledge by the will which has been discussed; in fact, we cannot really form any conception of such a thing. No one will try to explain it by saying that falsely interpreted motives lead the will astray, for this is a fault of the intellect in its own function. This fault is committed purely within the province of the intellect, and its influence on the will is wholly indirect. It would be more plausible to attribute irresolution to this, as in its case, through the conflict of the motives presented by the intellect to the will, the latter is brought to a standstill, and is therefore impeded. But on closer consideration it becomes very clear that the cause of this hindrance is to be sought not in the activity of the intellect as such, but simply and solely in the external objects brought about by this activity. The objects stand for once precisely in such a relation to the will, which is here interested, that they pull it in different directions with nearly equal force. This real cause acts merely through the intellect as the medium of motives, although, of course, only on the assumption that the intellect is keen enough to comprehend the objects and their manifold relations exactly. Indecision as a trait of character is conditioned just as much by qualities of the will as by those of the intellect. It is, of course, not peculiar to extremely limited minds, because their feeble understanding does not enable them to discover so many different qualities and relations in things. Moreover, their understanding is so little fitted for the effort of reflecting on and pondering over those things, and so over the probable consequences of each step, that they prefer to decide at once in accordance with the first impression or some simple rule of conduct. The converse of this occurs in the case of people of considerable understanding. Therefore, whenever these have in addition a tender care for their own well-being, in other words, a very sensitive egoism that certainly does not want to come off too badly and wants to be always safe and secure, this produces at every step a certain uneasiness, and hence indecision. Therefore this quality points in every way to a want not of understanding, but of courage. Yet very eminent minds survey the relations and their probable developments with such rapidity and certainty that, if only they are supported by some courage, they thus acquire that quick peremptoriness and resoluteness which fits them to play an important role in world affairs, provided that times and circumstances afford the opportunity for so doing.

The only decided, direct hindrance and disturbance that the will can suffer from the intellect as such, may indeed be quite exceptional. This is the consequence of an abnormally predominant development of the intellect, and hence of that high endowment described as genius. Such a gift is indeed a decided hindrance to the energy of the character, and consequently to the power of action. Therefore it is not the really great minds that make historical characters, since such characters, capable of bridling and governing the mass of mankind, struggle with world-affairs. On the contrary, men of much less mental capacity are suitable for this, when they have great firmness, resolution, and inflexibility of will, such as cannot exist at all with very high intelligence. Accordingly, with such high intelligence a case actually occurs where the intellect directly impedes the will.

6. In contrast to the obstacles and hindrances mentioned, which the intellect suffers from the will, I wish now to show by a few examples how, conversely, the functions of the intellect are sometimes aided and enhanced by the incentive and spur of the will, so that here also we may recognize the primary nature of the one and the secondary nature of the other, and that it may become clear that the intellect stands to the will in the relation of a tool.

A powerfully acting motive, such as a yearning desire or pressing need, sometimes raises the intellect to a degree of which we had never previously believed it capable. Difficult circumstances, imposing on us the necessity of certain achievements, develop entirely new talents in us, the germs of which had remained hidden from us, and for which we did not credit ourselves with any capacity. The understanding of the stupidest person becomes keen when it is a question of objects that closely concern his willing. He now observes, notices, and distinguishes with great subtlety and refinement even the smallest circumstances that have reference to his desires or fears. This has much to do with that cunning of half-witted persons which is often observed with surprise. …

In just the same way, memory is enhanced by pressure of the will. Even when otherwise weak, it preserves completely what is of value to the ruling passion. The lover forgets no opportunity favourable to him, the man of ambition no circumstance that suits his plans, the miser never forgets the loss he has suffered, the proud man never forgets an injury to his honour, the vain person remembers every word of praise and even the smallest distinction that falls to his lot …

An examination of ourselves gives us an opportunity for finer observations in this respect. Through an interruption or disturbance, what I was just thinking about, or even the news that I have just come to hear, sometimes slips entirely from my memory. Now, if the matter had in any way a personal interest, however remote, there remains the after-effect of the impression thus made by it on the will. Thus I am still quite conscious how far it affected me agreeably or disagreeably, and also of the special way in which this happened, thus whether, although in a feeble degree, it offended me, or made me anxious, or irritated me, or grieved me, or else produced the opposite of these affections. Hence the mere relation of the thing to my will has been retained in the memory, after the thing itself has vanished from me; and this relation in turn often becomes the clue for returning to the thing itself. The sight of a person sometimes affects us in an analogous way, since only in general do we remember having had something to do with him, without knowing where, when, and what it was, or who he is. On the other hand, the sight of him still recalls pretty accurately the feeling or frame of mind formerly roused in us by our dealings with him, that is, whether it was agreeable or disagreeable, and to what degree and in what way it was so. Therefore the memory has preserved merely the approval or disapproval of the will, not what called it forth …  memory in general requires the foundation of a will as a point of contact, or rather as a thread on which the recollections range themselves, and which holds them firmly together, or that the will is, so to speak, the ground on which the individual recollections stick, and without which they could not be fixed. We shall therefore reach the conclusion that a memory cannot really be conceived in a pure intelligence, in other words in a merely knowing and absolutely will-less being …

Over willing itself, however, over its main tendency or fundamental maxim, the intellect has no power. To believe that knowledge really and radically determines the will is like believing that the lantern a man carries at night is the primum mobile of his steps.



young philosopher porrait will subconscious psychology intellect genius

Arthur Schopenhauer