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Schopenhauer and the metaphysics of will

December 26th, 2007 · 2 Comments

Question from James:

I know you’ve written frequently about Schopenhauer’s general framework of transcendental idealism, but what do you think about the specifics of his metaphysics of the will? What do you think about his attempt to provide an atheistic account of teleology?

Good question. I am not sure what you mean by teleology here. I tend to think and use the term historically because of my own work. Schopenhauer was very ahistorical, yet ironically his work is helpful (at least to me) in coming to a new view on the philosophy of history.
The question of Schopenhauer’s treatment of will is on one level transparent, on another highly elusive. Strictly speaking Schopenhauer’s ‘metaphysics of the will’ is just that, a metaphysical rendition of the noumenal (a term Schopenhauer leaves behind for Thing In Iself). And yet Schopenhauer pulls off a most remarkable feat in his simultaneous fidelity to Kant and his departure into a new perspective that is unique in its aptness, since it shows how the Upanishadic world is a disguised form of just this kind of contradiction, the realm of Maya, yet the atman=brahman insight, so similar to Schopenhauer’s will (remember, the Thing in Itself in Schopenhauer is non-dual, beyond differentiation, wills (atman) are not different from Will (brahman).
The reason for Schopenhauer’s ‘success’ is the plausibility of considering that man’s interiority would show closer intimations of the Thing in Iself than his exteriority. Our inner psychology is still phenomenon, yet something shines through from the deeper Thing in Iself.
It is worth studying his historical moment, as he encountered the world of the post-Kantians, whom he came to criticize harshly. Yet his final work shows a subtle response to such figures (he attended the lectures of Fichte, for example). It seems that the post-Kantians were in a mad rush to counter the ‘dualism’ of Kant, and rescue the old metaphysics in some fashion that took Kant into account. Schopenhauer almost seems like a counterattack (he was contemporary with Hegel, however) to restore the Kantian basics in the wake of the collapse of the Grand Idealism of the post-Kantians, and his sudden popularity in the 1850’s accurately reflects that, literally so, as his sudden fame occurred due to a critique of Hegel in a famous English review journal. Somehow the metaphysics of the will seems like a dragon-slayer’s gesture aimed at Hegelian Geist with its deceptive Christian propaganda hiding a monstrous devil. Schopenhauer is enraged by this ‘ideology’ that became ‘official’ in the political culture of his generation.
So Schopenhauer is a sly response to the post-Kantians, restoring the Kantian framework, yet cleverly displacing the idealist obscurities with a version of that of his own, one that reflects a Kantian and yet an atheist viewpoint, and at the same time one that is not condemned to realism on that basis. One recent scholar of Schopenhauer, poring over the texts, claims (It is a recent book by Julian Young, I believe) that Vol II of his work indicates that late in life Schopenhauer came to doubt his own discourse on the will. If so, that’s a funny justice, and a Kantian irony. Whatever the case, my point is that, for me, the question of Schopenhauer and the will is an audacious attempt to be both faithful to Kant and at the same time go beyond the boxed in feeling some take from Kant’s ruthless view of the limits of knowledge. In a way this is prefigured in Kant’s ambiguous treatment of the will in his moral and ethical writings, the second critique, as these seem to be inconsistent with his first critique. Schopenhauer, of course, is critical of Kant’s ethical critiques, and proceeds along another, almost, it seems, Buddhist line, with compassion as the basis of ethics.

The point for me is that I make use of Schopenhauer and yet never bat an eyelash at his metaphysics of the will. I take it as a placeholder for the Thing in Itself, a wild attempt to give the unknown a minimal handle. And it is eerie how it ‘works’. But it is still a metaphysical gesture, the cleverest of them all, post Kant. Of all the ways to resolve Kantian enigmas, it seems the best, but we can’t give that the status of certain knowledge. It is worth reading Bryan Magee’s book here, for he goes into the question at some length.

In the final analysis my use of Schopenhauer lies in his basic framework of transcendental idealism. The clarity of his treatment is classic. That’s all I need (keeping in mind that Schopenhauer is fully idealist, while Kant retains a anchor in realist thought). The question of the metaphysics of the will is a sort of extra, a taste, but no more. Keep in mind the different mood toward existence that animates the Buddhist, the first noble truth. Schopenhauer reflects that. Hence his notion of the will as nothing we think of as ‘will’, and its desparing insight into the suffering of existence. Armed with that insight you can see how Schopenhauer unwittingly is transposing beyond Hegel, stripping away the theology, and bringing to the historical the sense of the eternal.

So the real issue is the basis of his transcendental idealism just at the boundary where he takes off into his fugue on the will. Others will go with him further in that direction. Indeed, I do so myself, but that is not a belief system. Keep in mind that his use of the term ‘will’ can be quite misleading. It does not refer to our sense of ‘intellectual will power’. It is a framework that encompasses, for example, the laws of physics. His thinking here shows why he succeeds where the other idealists become confused. His insight on the ‘will’ in that sense is absolutely brilliant and has even been taken over by the writer J.G. Bennett in his Dramatic Universe, a botched book, whose one saving grace is his eludication of these framework laws in the sense of ‘will’.

But the value of Schopenhauer is his rescue of the nearly lost initiative of his great predecessor Kant whose obscurity, then hijacking by the post-Kantian absolute idealists, threatened to leave a great advance in ruins.

More to be said here. Hope that helps.

Tags: Philosophy

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 James // Dec 27, 2007 at 12:35 am

    “I am not sure what you mean by teleology here.”

    Teleology is the wrong word. I was mainly referring to the fact that his metaphysical system accounts for the arising of biological organisms by making them a natural consequence due to the differentiation of the will.

  • 2 nemo // Dec 27, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    And it is not quite clear how this is expressed empirically, hence it is difficult to resolve the concept. But his depiction of the ‘will’ is clearly portrayed as aimless.

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