Will and Representation

The World of Schopenhauer

Thomas Masini

The very nature of the will is volition, the inexhaustible and inexhaustible desire: will wants, it wants everything and it wants itself, and nothing that exists is able to appease this indomitable desire.

    The history of philosophy’s horizon that now stands before us is quite uneven and studded with peaks which need to be crossed. By this I mean that, after having climbed the grandiose Hegelian system in the previous article [1] , on the chronological line many authors present themselves before us, (in a short space of time) who are not only important in themselves, but fundamental for understanding today’s outcomes of philosophy and our own approach to reality ‒ which is indebted to their thought. The philosopher discussed in the following pages is Arthur Schopenhauer who is also known to have been the Hegel’s coeval nemesis. Their mutual aversion is famous, to the point that Schopenhauer ‒ who in 1820 earned his chair at the University of Berlin ‒ demanded  that his lectures always be held on the same days and times as Hegel’s and obtained it; with the result that while Hegel had an audience of around 400 listeners, no more than five showed up at Schopenhauer’s lectures, so much so that from the second semester onwards the lectures were suspended due to lack of audience. This was a deep existential wound for the philosopher who described his enemy as «that clumsy and nauseating charlatan, that pernicious person, who completely disorganized and ruined the minds of a whole generation».[2] 

    But let us leave aside the gossip, even though when talking about Schopenhauer, there would be more to be said than any other philosopher, reaching often the absurd and amusing, and deal with his philosophy. His main and fundamental work is, of course, The World as Will and Representation, (published in 1818, with very few and mostly negative reviews, and unsold to the point that the publisher turned most copies to pulp paper). Read what the author’s intention was for this volume of his:

I propose to state here how this book is to be ‘read, in order that it may be thoroughly understood. What is to be imparted by it is a single thought. Yet in spite of all my efforts, I have not been able to find a shorter way of imparting that thought than the whole of this book. I consider this thought to be that which has been sought for a very long time under the name of philosophy, and that whose discovery is for this very reason regarded by those versed in history as just as impossible as the discovery of the philosophers’ stone, although Pliny had already said to them:  Quam multa fieri non posse, priusquam sint facta, judicantur? (Historia naturalis, 7, 1). [3] 

   The project is ambitious, and underpinned by the conviction that we have finally found the true answer to the millenial questions of philosophy. But what is this one thought that must be conveyed? Might the reader forgive me for placing a second quotation here:

[…] for this world is, on the one side, entirely  representation, just as, on the other, it is entirely will. But a reality that is neither of these two, but an object in itself (into which also Kant’s thing-in-itself has unfortunately degenerated in his hands), is the phantom of a dream, and its acceptance is an  ignis fatuus in philosophy. [4] 

The ‘world’ ‒ which for now we can assume to be synonymous to ‘totality’ ‒ is both totally will and totally representation, albeit according to different respects. At this point, however, it is necessary to understand what is meant by these two terms.

     The world as representation.

     In the first paragraph of the first book of The World, Schopenhauer writes: «Therefore no truth is more certain, more independent of all others, and less in need of proof than this, namely that everything that exists for knowledge, and hence the whole of this world, is only object in relation to the subject, perception of the perceiver, in a word, representation». [5]  Representation, therefore, is the foundation of knowledge, intuition and perception, i.e. the sine qua non of the existence of the object ‒ as that which is known ‒ and of the subject ‒ as that which knows. Therefore, the world as knowing subject and known object (and together these two categories saturate the totality of the knowable) is representation ‒ naturally the knowing subject is the human. But what rules does representation follow, i.e. what are the laws that constitute the world of representation as it is and not otherwise? Fundamentally, it is a single principle, albeit divided into four, which Schopenhauer takes from Leibniz and elaborates fully: the principle of sufficient reason. It is no coincidence that his doctoral thesis (1813) bears the title: On the fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. [6]  This principle basically states that nothing can be as it is, can exist, or be true without there being at least a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise; or, in other words, everything that exists, and is true, is so because there is a sufficient reason or motivation to make it so. Schopenhauer distinguishes four roots of the principle: the law of causality, the (deductive) principle of knowing, the principle of being, and the law of motivation. Without going into too much detail, it is enough to notice how these four roots are capable of giving reasons for every aspect of the world of representation, i.e. always giving an answer to the question “why?“.

     It has already been said that the subject and the object are both part of representation (or rather, for Schopenhauer, not only is there no pre-eminence of one over the other ‒ as materialism and idealism claim ‒ but it is an inseparable unity), but clearly it is the subject that bears the task of perception, or intuition. This peculiarity means that the subject can also know itself as an object, i.e. it can make its corporeality the object of its knowledge. In doing so, however, the subject discovers something within itself that is not subject to the principle of sufficient reason, something that escapes the laws that govern the world as representation. This ‘something’ is what Schopenhauer calls voluntas (will).

     The world as will.

     Schopenhauer writes:

Phenomenon means representation and nothing more. All representation, be it of whatever kind it may, all  object, is phenomenon. But only the will is thing-in-itself; as such it is not representation at all, but toto genere  different therefrom. It is that of which all representation, all object, is the phenomenon, the visibility, the objectivity. It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate conduct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature of what is manifested. [7] 

     The will is the thing-in-itself, that is, the deepest and innermost core of the world, its most intrinsic and hidden nature. For since it is not subject to the principle of sufficient reason, it is likewise unknowable in itself. Only those manifestations of it can be grasped that appear in the form of representations, that is, it manifests itself as that force that causes certain representations to be constituted in a certain way. The very nature of the will is volition, the inexhaustible and inexhaustible desire: will wants, it wants everything and it wants itself, and nothing that exists ‒ neither any representation, nor the will itself ‒ is able to appease this indomitable desire. This is the reason for the continuous, troubled and suffering becoming of nature, and it is also the reason for the restlessness and dissatisfaction that constitutes human experience in the world. Since will wants and nothing can appease its desire, it generates pain; since the will wants, even if it were granted and its desire ceased, it would generate boredom: «Hence its life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituent». [8]  The human being in particular, in his prerogative as subject/object, is more than anything else subject to the grip of will, which manifests itself in it, in the utmost way: its unquenchable desire and his unbreakable will to live drag it without way of escape into the vortex of pain without end and without purpose.

     Beyond the ‘world’.

     There is, however, the possibility ‒ albeit almost non-existent and in some ways insane ‒ of trying to escape this yoke of will. If the will is the essence of the human being as a thing in itself, and indeed manifests itself in him primarily as the will to live, the only way to escape its grip is precisely to abandon the will to live itself.  In this regard, detachment from the will in order to get to what Schopenhauer calls noluntas is equivalent to detachment from life itself: a kind of ascetic path made up of privation and contemplation, of remoteness and ataraxia. It is the path that an Eastern sage takes in his departure from the world towards enlightenment. The greatest problem, however, is  that embarking on this path presupposes an act of will, that is, the will to abandon the will is also will. And how can one turn away from one’s innermost essence, from one’s very desire to live, to exist? Setting the problem in this manner, leaves little hope of success. Yet it is only by giving up will that:

[…] we see that peace that is higher than all reason, that ocean-like calmness of the spirit, that deep tranquillity, that unshakable confidence and serenity, whose mere reflection in the countenance, as depicted by Raphael and Correggio, is a complete and certain gospel. Only knowledge remains; the will has vanished.

[…] we freely acknowledge that what remains after the complete abolition of the will is, for all who are still full of the will, assuredly nothing. But also conversely, to those in whom the will has turned and denied itself, this very real world of ours with all its suns and galaxies, is — nothing. [9] 

    I want to remember and thank here, once again, Giorgio Brianese, professor and master to whom I owe, among other things, what I know of Schopenhauer, and whose memory will always remain.

[2] A. Schopenhauer, On Philosophy at the Universities, in Parerga and Paralipomena. Short Philosophical Essays, translated from the German by  E. F. J. Payne, 2 voll., Oxford university press, New York 2000, I vol., pp. 137-198, p. 168. 

[3] A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, translated from the German by  E. F. J. Payne, 2 voll., Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1969, vol. I, Preface to the first edition, p. XII.

[4] A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, op. cit., vol. I, p. 4.

[5] Ivi, vol. I, p. 3. 

[6] A. Schopenhauer, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. On Vision and Colours. On Will in Nature, translated and edited by D. E. Cartwright, E. E. Erdmann, C. Janaway, with an introduction by D. E. Cartwright, E. E. Erdmann, Cambridge University press, New York 2002, pp. 1-198.

[7] A. Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, op. cit., vol. I, p. 111.

[8] Ivi, vol I, p. 312.

[9] Ivi, vol. I, pp. 411-412.

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