SCHOPENHAUER: The World as Idea

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter VII Section 3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.


III. The World as Idea

What strikes the reader at once upon opening The World as Will and Idea is its style. Here is no Chinese puzzle of Kantian terminology, no Hegelian obfuscation, no Spinozist geometry; everything is clarity and order; and all is admirably centered about the leading conception of the world as will, and therefore strife, and therefore misery. What blunt honesty, what refreshing vigor, what uncompromising directness! Where his predecessors are abstract to the point of invisibility, with theories that give out few windows of illustration upon the actual world, Schopenhauer, like the son of a business man, is rich in the concrete, in examples, in applications, even in humor.* After Kant, humor in philosophy was a startling innovation. 

*One instance of his humor had better be buried in the obscurity of a foot-note. “The actor Unzelmann,” notorious for adding remarks of his own to the lines of the playwright, “was forbidden, at the Berlin theatre, to improvise. Soon afterwards he had to appear upon the stage on horseback.” Just as they entered, the horse was guilty of conduct seriously unbecoming a public stage. “The audience began to laugh; Whereupon Unzelmann severely reproached the horse:—‘Do you not know that we are forbidden to improvise!’”—Vol. ii, p. 273. 

This reminds one of Buddha’s first noble truth—see The First Noble Truth – Dukkha. Schopenhauer’s work is marked by blunt honesty and refreshing vigor.

But why was the book rejected? Partly because it attacked just those who could have given it publicity—the university teachers. Hegel was philosophic dictator of Germany in 1818; yet Schopenhauer loses no time in assailing him. In the preface to the second edition he writes: 

No time can be more unfavorable to philosophy than that in which it is shamefully misused on the one hand to further political objects, on the other as a means of livelihood. … Is there then nothing to oppose to the maxim, Primum vivere, deinde philosophari? [First one must live, then one may philosophize.] These gentlemen desire to live, and indeed to live by philosophy. To philosophy they are assigned, with their wives and children. … The rule, “I sing the song of him whose bread I eat,” has always held good; the making of money by philosophy was regarded by the ancients as the characteristic of the sophists. … Nothing is to be had for gold but mediocrity. … It is impossible that an age which for twenty years has applauded a Hegel— that intellectual Caliban—as the greatest of the philosophers, … could make him who has looked on at that desirous of its approbation. … But rather, truth will always be pauconum hominum, [of few men.] and must therefore quietly and modestly wait for the few whose unusual mode of thought may find it enjoyable. … Life is short, but truth works far and lives long; let us speak the truth. 

Schopenhauer’s book was rejected partly because it attacked those university teachers who could have given it publicity.

These last words are nobly spoken; but there is something of sour grapes in it all; no man was ever more anxious for approbation than Schopenhauer. It would have been nobler still to say nothing ill of Hegel; de vivis nil nisi bonum—of the living let us say nothing but good. And as for modestly awaiting recognition,—“I cannot see,” says Schopenhauer, “that between Kant and myself anything has been done in philosophy.” “I hold this thought—that the world is will—to be that which has long been sought for under the name of philosophy, and the discovery of which is therefore regarded, by those who are familiar with history, as quite as impossible as the discovery of the philosopher’s stone.” “I only intend to impart a single thought. Yet, notwithstanding all my endeavors, I could find no shorter way of imparting it than this whole book. … Read the book twice, and the first time with great patience.”* So much for modesty! “What is modesty but hypocritical humility, by means of which, in a world swelling with envy, a man seeks to obtain pardon for excellences and merits from those who have none?” “No doubt, when modesty was made a virtue, it was a very advantageous thing for the fools.; for everybody is expected to speak of himself as if he were one.” 

*In fact, this is just what one must do; many have found even a third reading fruitful. A great book is like a great symphony, which must be heard many times before it can be really understood. 

Schopenhauer doesn’t think much of modesty. He just wanted to speak his truth that the world is the will.

There was no humility about the first sentence of Schopenhauer’s book. “The world,” it begins, “is my idea.” When Fichte had uttered a similar proposition even the metaphysically sophisticated Germans had asked,—“What does his wife say about this?” But Schopenhauer had no wife. His meaning, of course, was simple enough: he wished to accept at the outset the Kantian position that the external world is known to us only through our sensations and ideas. There follows an exposition of idealism which is clear and forceful enough, but which constitutes the least original part of the book, and might better have come last than first. The world took a generation to discover Schopenhauer because he put his worst foot forward, and hid his own thought behind a two-hundred- page barrier of second-hand idealism.*

*Instead of recommending books about Schopenhauer it would be better to send the reader to Schopenhauer himself: all three volumes of his main work (with the exception of Part I in each volume) are easy reading, and full of matter; and all the Essays are valuable and delightful. By way of biography Wallace’s Life should suffice. In this essay it has been thought desirable to condense Schopenhauer’s immense volumes not by rephrasing their ideas, but by selecting and coordinating the salient passages, and leaving the thought in the philosopher’s own clear and brilliant language. The reader will have the; benefit of getting Schopenhauer at drst hand. however briefly. 

The world took a generation to discover Schopenhauer because he put his worst foot forward, and hid his own thought behind a two-hundred-page barrier of second-hand idealism.

The most vital part of the first section is an attack on materialism. How can we explain mind as matter, when we know matter only through mind?

If we had followed materialism thus far with clear ideas, when we reached its highest point we would suddenly be seized with a fit of the inextinguishable laughter of the Olympians. As if waking from a dream, we would all at once become aware that its final result—knowledge—which it had reached so laboriously, was presupposed as the indispensable condition of its very starting-point. Mere matter; and when we imagined that we thought matter, we really thought only the subject that perceives matter: the eye that sees it, the hand that feels it, the understanding that knows it. Thus the tremendous petitio principii reveals itself unexpectedly; for suddenly the last link is seen to be the starting-point, the chain a circle; and the materialist is like Baron Münchausen, who, when swimming on horseback, drew the horse into the air with his legs, and himself by his queue. … The crude materialism which even now, in the middle of the nineteenth century, has been served up again under the ignorant delusion that it is original, … stupidly denies vital force, and first of all tries to explain the phenomena of life from physical and chemical forces, and those again from the mechanical effects of matters. … But I will never believe that even the simplest chemical combination will ever admit of mechanical explanation; much less the properties of light, heat, and electricity. These will always require a dynamical explanation.

The most vital part of the first section is an attack on materialism. How can we explain mind as matter, when we know matter only through mind?

No: it is impossible to solve the metaphysical puzzle, to discover the secret essence of reality, by examining matter first, and then proceeding to examine thought: we must begin with that which we know directly and intimately—ourselves. ”We can never arrive at the real nature of things from without. However much we may investigate, we can never reach anything but images and names. We are like a man who goes round a castle seeking in vain for an entrance, and sometimes sketching the facades.” Let us enter within. If we can ferret out the ultimate nature of our own minds we shall perhaps have the key to the external world. 

It is impossible to discover the secret essence of reality, by examining matter first. If we can ferret out the ultimate nature of our own minds we shall perhaps have the key to the external world. 


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