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Go BackArthur Schopenhauer
German Transcendental Idealist


German Transcendental Idealist, perhaps the first Western philosopher to interpret, if not reality, at least Plato and Kant through Eastern Concepts (i.e. the Upanishads, Buddhism, Hinduism), but in such a way as to present, some will say, a somewhat pessimistic, even nihilistic misrepresentation of Eastern Thought.  Others charge Schopenhauer for offering nothing more than a strange, idiosyncratic blending of Kant, Plato and Buddha.

Schopenhauer's dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, presented in 1813, is an innovative reading of Kant's philosophy, and can be used as a guide to the entire body of work to come after.  The "principle of sufficient reason" attempts to capture the idea that all objects are relational, and that the mind, or consciousness, comes to understand the world through the relations of objects to each other. 

The metaphysical underpinnings of the "principle" are explored and explained in Schopenhauer's monumental work, The World as Will and Representation, written in 1818, then revised and expanded in 1844. The title of this work is perfect, in that it captures within a single line of text, Schopenhauer's guiding thesis: the core of reality (World, Nature, Being), as well as the metaphysical nature of every object (Kant's thing-in-itself) is Will.  Will is relationally manifested in every fact, experience and object.  The phenomenal world in all its fantastic variety, is ultimately guided by the inner workings of a single drive which perpetually moves events toward the Will's further unfolding. Invoking Plato's Ideas, Schopenhauer claims that objects and events both hide and reveal the universal reality of Will. Taken as a whole, the relational principle of sufficient reason reveals itself as an immense, diabolic collusion of energy which no thing escapes.  Every thing, from gnats to humans are subordinated by Will. As Schopenhauer says:

" is everywhere one and the same -- just as the first morning dawn shares the name of sunlight with the rays of the full midday sun -- it must in either case bear the name of will.  For this word indicates that which is the being-in-itself of every thing in the world, and is the sole kernel of every phenomenon." (The World as Will and Representation, vol. I, trans. E. F. Payne; New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969, 118)

Humans are able to experience -- even come to know -- this terrible truth through the body, since the body is itself a representation of the Will. For Schopenhauer, the way to understanding the World as Will is through Aesthetic Experience. Schopenhauer describes this state of awareness as a type of mystical experience.  Kant's notion of the Sublime becomes, for Schopenhauer, the vehicle through which the human body 'sees,' through direct experience, the awesome visibility of a world feeding upon itself in order to maintain its unconscious hunger for future life...the need for prey, the anxiety of becoming prey, and the suffering and pain of the inevitable feast.

As such, the Will manifests a steady state of conflicting interests, forces, and desires, a dependent and interrelated cybernetic web.  The experience of the sublime brings us into a direct understanding of our place within this dreadful hierarchy.  Ultimately, we learn, just as the Buddha teaches, that all life is pain and suffering, and even our most cherished emotions are, in truth, illusory (Maya).  In other words, all our personal cares, interests, loves, hates are not actually ours, but rather the Will manifesting itself through us.  We are mere puppets in a cruel hierarchy of pain.  The final lesson aesthetic experience teaches is that philosophical understanding compells us into a type of self-imposed ethical or moral condition where the goal of human life becomes the very denial of Will.  But, the denial of the will to live -- just imagine -- is not easy.  In fact, it requires all the muster and devotion of a religious saint.  Our awareness of the World as Will demands a Buddha's compassion, a compassion that sees the radical equality of every living thing, and thereby dedicates every moment of one's life to quelling the suffering of even the smallest and seemingly insignificant of creatures.

Online Resources

Arthur Schopenhauer: Biography

Biography by Peter Landry at


Schopenhauer was, as a philosopher, a pessimist; he was a follower of Kant's Idealist school.

Born in Danzig, Schopenhauer, because of a large inheritance from his father, was able to retire early, and, as a private scholar, was able to devote his life to the study of philosophy. By the age of thirty his major work, The World as Will and Idea, was published. The work, though sales were very disappointing, was, at least to Schopenhauer, a very important work. Bertrand Russell reports that Schopenhauer told people that certain of the paragraphs were written by the "Holy Ghost."

Schopenhauer's system of philosophy, as previously mentioned, was based on that of Kant's. Schopenhauer did not believe that people had individual wills but were rather simply part of a vast and single will that pervades the universe: that the feeling of separateness that each of has is but an illusion. So far this sounds much like the Spinozistic view or the Naturalistic School of philosophy. The problem with Schopenhauer, and certainly unlike Spinoza, is that, in his view, "the cosmic will is wicked ... and the source of all endless suffering."


Arthur Schopenhauer

Essay by Kelly Ross.


Certainly one of the greatest philosophers of the 19th century, Schopenhauer seems to have had more impact on literature (e.g. Thomas Mann) and on people in general than on academic philosophy. Perhaps that is because, first, he wrote very well, simply and intelligibly (unusual, we might say, for a German philosopher, and unusual now for any philosopher), second, he was the first Western philosopher to have access to translations of philosophical material from India, both Vedic and Buddhist, by which he was profoundly affected, to the great interest of many, and, third, his concerns were with the dilemmas and tragedies, in a religious or existential sense, of real life, not just with abstract philosophical problems. As Jung said:

He was the first to speak of the suffering of the world, which visibly and glaringly surrounds us, and of confusion, passion, evil--all those things which the [other philosophers] hardly seemed to notice and always tried to resolve into all-embracing harmony and comprehensiblility. Here at last was a philosopher who had the courage to see that all was not for the best in the fundaments of the universe.
[Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, 1961, p. 69}

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