Schopenhauer and the Philosophy of Mind

(Lecture delivered in the ‘2011 Towards a Science of Consciousness’

conference in Stockholm University, organised by the University of Arizona)

Schopenhauer and the Philosophy of Mind

– Peter Sjöstedt-H  –

(20-minute Talk)

Key Point:

Subjectivity cannot ‘emerge’ from matter, as matter is nothing but a human representation of subjectivity, or ‘will’.

–        This view argued by Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) is part of a developed philosophical system that will contribute to contemporary discussions vis-à-vis consciousness.


–        In his latest book, ‘The Character of Consciousness’, David J Chalmers argues that a sufficient materialist explanation of consciousness will prove impossible. In its stead, Chalmers advocates what he calls ‘Type-F Monism’:

  • “Type-F Monism is the view that consciousness is constituted by the intrinsic properties of fundamental physical entities … phenomenal or protophenomenal properties are located at the fundamental level of physical reality and in a certain sense underlie physical reality itself … If so, then consciousness and physical reality are deeply intertwined … the view can be seen as a sort of idealism” (pp.133/4)

Following his advocacy of such an idealism (as opposed to materialism or dualism), he writes:

“Overall, Type-F monism promises a deeply integrated and elegant view of nature. No one has yet developed any sort of detailed theory in this class, and it is not clear whether such a theory can be developed.” (p.137)

–        In fact, such a view of nature has been developed in detail and constitutes Schopenhauer’s Transcendental Idealism.

  • Chalmers told me that he had never studied Schopenhauer, a common negligence despite Schopenhauer’s influence on Einstein, Schrödinger, Nietzsche, Freud and other influential thinkers.
    • In fact, Erwin Schrödinger, a founder of quantum physics, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in this very institution, was an ardent Schopenhauerian.

So I here aim to introduce the relevant parts of Schopenhauer’s Philosophy so to see how it bears on modern approaches to the ‘science of consciousness’.

What is Matter?

–        Nothing but force: repulsion, attraction: the cause of change.

–        (Today: repulsion=electromagnetism; attraction = gravity, electromagnetism, strong & weak nuclear forces)

  • And that is repulsion and attraction of other ‘matter’, i.e. force.
    • Thus matter is force-on-force.
    • And this is causality.
      • i.e. matter = force = causality

–        This identification of matter pre-empts Einstein’s matter-energy conflation by almost a century (E=MC2).

What is Force?

–        Schopenhauer makes clear that for materialists, ‘force’ is a qualitates occultae, an occult, secret quality.

  • Forces are given as an axiom for explanation rather than something that can be explained.
    • i.e. for materialists, a sufficient explanation is a reduction to occult unknown ‘forces’.
      • (Furthermore, we only know these distinct forces through induction, and so many more could exist of which we are unaware.)

–        Therefore, even if, per impossibile, consciousness were ‘explained’ by materialism, it would be incomplete:

  • The forces would remain as mysterious as the mystery explained thereby!


Schopenhauer demystifies force to the extent that he provides an additional aspect for which ‘force’ can be understood:

–        Firstly, our understanding of force as matter is a mere idiosyncrasy of our evolution:

  • (And Schopenhauer advocated evolution in 1818, 41 years before Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Though of course the theory of evolution dates back to at least the 5th century BC with Empedocles)
  • If we were reduced to a submicroscopic size, we would not perceive the same forces as solid matter.
  • If we represented certain electromagnetic wave frequencies as sound rather than colour, our representation of reality would not be one of material solidity.
    • And there is no absolute reason why electromagnetic light frequencies should be represented as colour.

–        If we experienced the speed of time more slowly, we would perceive what we call motion as solidity.

  • The orbit of a planet could appear as a solid ring, for example.
  • And there is no absolute speed of time with which one could determine material solidity, which is repulsion, a force.
    • Schopenhauer inherits from Kant this notion that time is a priori, not absolute.

Thus firstly our understanding of force is conditioned by our human mental apparatus.

–        Secondly, and more importantly, we each have an additional understanding of force through ourselves:

  • Inner subjectivity.
    • For Schopenhauer this includes Reason, Understanding and Will; but it is Will that provides the complement to our knowledge of force.
    • Reason forms abstract concepts.
    • Understanding automatically provides a spatio-temporal conceptual framework for our experience which is pre-rational (from Kant’s Transcendental Idealism)
    • Will is the primal drive that includes our feelings, all of which are ultimately reducible to pleasure and pain in relation to willed objects, often subconsciously (anticipating Nietzsche).

–        We are each a unified, systematic force that has two means of knowledge:

  • = ‘Double-Aspect Theory’:
    • Sensory-intellectual (3rd-person)
    • Subjective          (1st-person)


–        Note: this is a theory that includes ‘vital force’, a notion Schopenhauer defends by stating that the accusation that such a force is occult and unverifiable is an accusation also applicable to the forces of nature to which the materialist accusers should like to reduce the organism.

  • An organism cannot be sufficiently explained by the known forces of nature (which today number four). A sufficient explanation requires further forces that subsume the lower in a hierarchy. An organism is an example of such a subsuming force.
    • As Werner Heisenberg noted,
    • “[I]t will probably be necessary for an understanding of life to go beyond quantum theory and to construct a new coherent set of concepts, to which physics and chemistry may belong … the combination of Darwin’s theory with physics and chemistry would not be sufficient to explain organic life … We would, in spite of the fact that the physical events in the brain belong to the psychic phenomena, not expect that these could be sufficient to explain them.” – Physics and Philosophy

– So, the force that is our action is doubly cognized: bodily motion (behaviour) and Will

–        (Simultaneously, not causally – Schopenhauer rejected Free Will.)

Only in ourselves as a unified system/organism, do we have this double knowledge: we represent our felt Will as behaviour.

–        For our knowledge of others, such double knowledge is impossible:

  • We represent others as matter in motion (thus ultimately as force).
    • i.e. single-aspect (3rd-person)
    • We cannot have the same numerical feel of another person, we can only assume it by analogy or instinct.
      • This is ‘the Problem of Other Minds’

–        Now, if we assume that the force that is another’s behaviour exists for them also as subjectivity (1st-person), then we can assume that

  • All force has for itself a subjectivity.
    • (This cannot be proved because ‘proof’ means 3rd-person experience, and we cannot by definition have 3rd-person sensory experience of subjectivity.
    • As it is unperceivable and immeasurable, it is unscientific (to today’s empirical science at least).
    • But this is a truth beyond science, a ‘Philosophical Truth’ as Schopenhauer calls it, which places metaphysics above physics.)

–        Thus the world is only force, or ‘will’ represented by us humans as ‘dead matter’ (acted upon by force).

  • Even gravity has an internal Will which we represent as its behaviour (i.e. spatio-temporality) just as we represent human behaviour and assume that there is a corresponding subjective Will.

In sum, to all force there is a subjective aspect.

–        Therefore we can view The World as Will and Representation

  • The name of Schopenhauer’s magnum opus.

–        i.e. the ultimate fabric of the world is force or energy or will which can represent other wills as material objects, or in whatever mode at all.


–        As force/matter, or matter-energy, already contains, or is, subjectivity (at the minimum a non-rational striving) it is an error to ask how subjectivity emerges from the brain, matter.

  • ‘Matter’ already has subjectivity: indeed it is for us the representation of subjectivity for itself.

–        Matter is the first-aspect representation of second-aspect Will. They are identical, though not identical in terms of matter (as in eliminative materialism).

  • Thus Schopenhauer presents a metaphysical ontological Monism with an epistemological Dualism.
    • i.e. a form of Transcendental Idealism, Identity Theory, and so-called Type-F Monism.


–        This Monism explains why there are neural correlates of consciousness, and why such correlation does not entail Materialism.

  • Mind does not emerge from matter; matter emerges as such from (human) minds.
  • Therefore the ‘Hard Problem of Consciousness’ is hard because the explanatory tools are insufficient:
    • Employing current science to explain consciousness is analogous to employing Christian theology to explain the cosmos:
      • The ontology is irreducible to the epistemology.
      • That ‘one day’ empirical science will be able to explain consciousness is faith.
        • Just as Newtonians thought they could explain the odd orbit of Mercury ‘one day’ using Newtonian physics, so do many scientists today think of today’s physics explaining consciousness.
        • As Richard Feynman noted,

“It was a shocking discovery of course that Newton’s laws are wrong … we now have a much more humble point of view of our physical laws – everything can be wrong.” – Feynman Lectures on Physics, v1,ch16.

–        It took a paradigm shift (viz. Relativity) to (better) explain Mercury’s orbit, a new set of explanatory tools, axioms.

  • So a further paradigm shift is required to better explain consciousness.
  • And this new paradigm will, if Schopenhauer had his way, include subjectivity not as something to be explained by other forces but rather as an aspect of force itself employed to explain reality.


–        For example, the difference between a motive and a mechanical cause, that is, between a final cause and an efficient cause, is not that the former is reducible to the latter, but that they are respectively the two forms of knowledge (double-aspect) of the same thing (Will/Force with Intent).

  • All forces strive internally, which we represent as spatio-temporal causal mechanical forces.
    • ‘Intentionality’ is the reflection of Mechanism.


–        Schopenhauer therefore advocates a Natural Teleology, which he is emphatic in separating from theology, as an atheist.

  • A conflation due to the Enlightenment rejection of all things associated with theology.

–        Schopenhauer accepted evolution, but would disagree with its mechanist presuppositions:

  • i.e. evolution as proactive rather than reactive (as there are internal ends, not merely external physical reactions).
    • This is perhaps a form of Lamarckism, but so arguably is the new science of Epigenetics.

Schopenhauer’s interpreted his own ontology as Pessimism:

–        “The basis of all willing … is need, lack and hence pain … If, on the other hand, it lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom come … life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom” – WWR v.i, §57

–        He therefore promoted an ascetic life, one where the will is denied so to halt this inevitable suffering.

However, this pessimistic interpretation is not necessary.

–        Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) accepted Schopenhauer’s metaphysics but revalued and thus renamed its central tenet:

  • For Schopenhauer, the Will was a will-to-survive; for Nietzsche the Will was the will-to-power (Wille zur Macht).
    • The fundamental thing-in-itself is a striving for power not survival.
      • Survival is nothing but the lowest degree of such a will to power.

–        For Schopenhauer, any transcendence of survival caused suffering and was thus to be considered (descriptively) immoral.

  • Nietzsche valued suffering as a necessary element of power development (“what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”), especially in terms of evolution.
    • Without obstacles that caused suffering in our evolutionary past we would not be the complex, powerful species we are today.

–        Nietzsche considered Schopenhauer’s devaluation of suffering and valuation of compassion to be a subconscious Christian presupposition Schopenhauer had, an unwitting ‘slave morality’.

  • By considering western morality,  a legacy of Christianity, as itself a power structure a form of the will to power, Nietzsche offered an interpretation of Schopenhauer’s philosophy that was optimistic: reality was not to be condemned.


–        For Nietzsche, the World is Will to Power and Representation

  • (Representation for our power: we only represent that which we can employ for our power ends.)

In conclusion, if we accept the Monism of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, we can consider subjectivity as an intrinsic part of the represented world-as-matter, a representation evolved for its power utility.

But the explanation of evolution is conditioned not simply by external mechanism (physics) but by internal will to power (metaphysics), which mechanism is but the 3rd-person phenomenon.

arthur schopenhauer philosophy mind consciousness stockolm science