Schopenhauer – Atheist, Idealist, Visionary

Below is an slightly amended transcript of a video I created to introduce people to the thought of Schopenhauer.
© Peter Sjöstedt-H MMX


Schopenhauer – An Introduction


Arthur Schopenhauer was undoubtedly a genius whose philosophy is little known despite its influence on Schrödinger, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Wagner, Freud, and other men of note. Indeed, Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, a founder of quantum physics, was an ardent disciple of Schopenhauer. Nietzsche’s philosophy can almost be considered a qualified footnote thereto. I shall therefore introduce the man’s thought in order to begin to fathom the depths that have enticed such souls.


Schopenhauer’s magnum opus is entitled as The World as Will and Representation, a name which encapsulates his central thesis: that we understand the world and universe from two valid epistemological perspectives, ‘double-aspect theory’, the realization of which undermines both dualism and materialism, leading to some strange and counterintuitive conclusions that include the anti-realism of space, time, and causality; the awareness within everything; the ultimate unity of all; the resolution of the mind-body interaction problem; and afterlife considerations. An atheist he was, but of a peculiar, transcendental idealist variety. Let us begin.


Two main types of knowledge pertain to the human: first- and third-person. Third-person knowledge is that which is of what we call the ‘external world’. One senses a spatio-temporal world of dynamic objects imbued with qualities of colour, sound, smell, taste, etc. It is common to believe that this world one perceives exists just as one perceives it; but as Democritus, Galileo, Bacon, and John Locke argued, colours, sounds, and other qualia exist only in our mind, not in the objects themselves. An airwave is translated by our minds into a sound. Without a mind there is no sound. We project the sound onto the world, as it were. Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer’s greatest influence, went further. Even space, time, and causality are projections of the mind. In reality, there is no space, time, causality, qualia, etc. All of these things are merely the structural filters of human minds. Other species will have different mental structural features. We humans are born with space-time and causality as mental faculties. We do not acquire these concepts from perception or experience; but rather, these concepts make experience possible – a transcendent truth. For instance, if we did not a priori, before experience, presume causality we could not infer external objects caused their perception of themselves in us. And likewise, if we did not presume space a priori we would not translate these perceptions as existing in a three-dimensional world exterior to ourselves. Without these a priori forms of the mind, there would be no subject-object dichotomy.


In sum, third-person knowledge is conditioned by the structure of the mind. Third-person knowledge is the representation of a more ultimate reality: the aspatial, atemporal, acausal, world-in-itself.


First-person knowledge is private. I cannot access your first-person knowledge, but I can guess it from your behavior using my third-person knowledge. If you smile, I can guess that your first-person knowledge is of joy, but I could guess incorrectly. Even if I scanned your brain, I could only infer what your first-person knowledge was of. I could never feel or experience as my first-person knowledge the numerically same first-person knowledge you were having.


Now, first-person and third-person knowledge are correlated. A high serotonin level in the brain (third-person knowledge) is correlated to happiness (first-person knowledge) for example, but they are not correlated because the content of first-person knowledge causes the content of third-person knowledge, as it were, as is the belief of dualists (spirit and body interactionists who believe in free will). Neither, contrariwise, are they correlated because the content of third-person knowledge (i.e. physiology) causes the content of first-person knowledge, as is the belief of epiphenomenalists. In other words, the belief that brain activity causes all mental activity – this is a common view today. Neither are they correlated because first-person knowledge is reducible to third-person knowledge, as is the belief of eliminative materialists (these people deny that first-person knowledge even exists). Rather, first- and third-person knowledge are correlated because both are different types of knowledge of the same ‘thing’: it is a double perspective. This is known, then, as double-aspect theory.


My feeling of happiness is my first-person knowledge of the same thing that my third-person knowledge sees as many serotonin molecules in the brain. First-person knowledge has been neglected by the modern age despite the fact that it is of equal epistemic veracity. In our bodies, and in our bodies alone, we have both first- and third-person knowledge. Of other bodies we have only third-person knowledge. But, all bodies have first-person knowledge, not merely humans. First and third person knowledge is of one type of ‘substance’, that which Schopenhauer calls ‘The Will’. This is not free will, a concept Schopenhauer refutes. Rather, it is to be understood as energy or force. All action is a third-person representation of this will in others. Only in our own bodies do we have a double epistemological view of it. We feel deep sorrow and we perceive tears dropping from our eyes, but only the latter in others. I emphasise, all action is first-person will that we represent as third-person spatio-temporal, qualitative matter – the world as will and representation.


The consequences are that not only animals but plants too, in fact all organisms, have a primitive first-person awareness that we represent as their growth patterns. Even further, all inorganic matter has energy, thus action. For Schopenhauer, even a planet has a non-conscious first-person desire or awareness that we represent as gravity; just as another person has a first-person desire that we, and he, represent as physiological action. The world is will and representation thereof, by will.


But note that awareness is not necessarily consciousness. Schopenhauer writes that the notion of consciousness without a brain is as nonsensical as the notion of digestion without a stomach. One can have desires without being conscious of them, as Freud later sought to develop.


As we humans represent the will within the framework of space and time, the will-in-itself (akin to the notion of Kant’s noumenon) is aspatio-temporal. This will is therefore undifferentiated, because differentiation employs space and time, and thus without past or future. In ultimate reality there is only that which Schopenhauer calls the Eternal Now. As a consequence of this unified reality ontology, Schopenhauer saw that compassion signifies a realisation of this absolute unity. This was the basis of his descriptive ethics. He considered prescriptive normative ethics with its oughts infantile, in opposition to Kant. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism branched in two after his death in 1804. There was Schopenhauer’s advance and concomitantly Hegel’s. Hegel’s philosophy dominated to such a degree that it became known as ‘the German Ideology’. This subsequently influenced Karl Marx who, as we know, influenced the events of the twentieth century.


In my view, Schopenhauer was the true heir of Kant and will come to inspire what we consider to be – the future.

arthur schopenhauer transcendental idealism double aspect theory philosophy introduction nietzsche will wille to survive power noumenon