In the cosmology of the ninetieth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the pure Will-in-itself, like the Christian God, the Hindu Brahman, or the Buddhist Nirvana, exists outside of space and time, beyond the realm of human comprehension or perception. It does, however, phenomenologically manifest itself, almost pantheistically, in our realm as both the unified totality of all of the objects of the physical universe, and as the will to exist and to act that propels these objects along their respective courses.
Schopenhauer privileged intuition and emotion more so than have many philosophers, enshrining them as among his four basic varieties of knowing. Also, taking a cue from the teachings of Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer held that ultimate metaphysics can never be known a priori or by means of the human intellect only. He held, then, that the body’s subjective experience of Will was the key to metaphysics, parting the curtain of illusion to reveal the essence of reality.
Schopenhauer explained that what people call their actions are Will-in-itself as seen from an external perspective, with the two actually being one and the same. Further, although he had difficulty logically proving the point beyond argument, he claimed that one’s experience of oneself as Will establishes that the phenomenological world consists not of phantoms but of other objects that are also in-themselves Will. The entire universe known to the human perceiver, including the totality of the human organism, is Will objectified, meaning that “Will that has become representation” and has become “translated into perception.”
One consequence of this philosophy is that, because the Will-in-itself is compulsive, never satiated, and is, overall, what a human may label “sinful” or ”evil,” these qualities pervade human existence as well. There seems to have been no reason for the Will to have generated itself as an universe, but, because it has, we its avatars now manifest the conflict, suffering, and inadequacy that chasing its pointless, irrational, and endless drives bring to us. In sum, then, we humans are objectifications of a malignant “force” and there is little hope for our lives; ”the most immediate and direct purpose of our [lives is] suffering,” Schopenhauer wrote.
Because of this, Schopenhauer’s philosophy actually values non-existence and denial of being. Suicide is a reoccurring touchstone in his writings, and the highest stage of his ethics is an ascetic renunciation. He also values intellectual aesthetic distraction, through art or music, where one can, for brief interludes, contemplate freely and escape the gnawing demands of the insatiable Will.
A second consequence of Schopenhauer’s conceptualization of human body as objectification of Will is that it affords humans no free will. Even the most broad reading of his writing seems to allow for at most a conditioned and partial freedom from determination, and at least none whatsoever. In his world view, human intellect is certainly not in control of action, because it is merely an epiphenomena that exists because it serves to the hungry needs of the Will. In fact, one could say that, for Schopenhauer, like Buddhists, the whole question of freedom is misleading, because it portrays the self as something other than Will-in-itself; he says that, rather than human action being caused by the Will, human action is Will acting in an objectified way.
Schopenhauer’s determinism, then, arises from his belief that humanity and our environment are joined as an unified whole, which is a third consequence of his philosophy. As the title of his magnum opus “The World as Will and Representation” suggests, he asserted that existence consists of the unitary Will-in-itself, of perceptual representations of this entity, and of absolutely nothing else. Like the Eastern Mystics whose writings influenced him, he negated the dualisms such as mind|body, life|death, and human|natural environment that have been so central to Platonic, Judeo-Christian, and Cartesian thought. For example, Schopenhauer conceptualized our intellect and consciousness as being nothing more than the organic function of a biological brain, and thereby manifestations of the same ubiquitous Will that all else in a manifestation of.
This unitive non-duality is also source of what may be called the most optimistic and pleasant aspects of Schopenhauer’s writings. It provides impetus for a serene acceptance of death that I find soothing. The unitive reality behind the illusion of separateness similarly motivates a positive social ethic and an almost happy feeling that take place at a certain altitude of ethical behavior where one has a deep perception of interconnection and is filled with compassionate, pitying action that make the rest of the world full of “friendly phenomena”.
A fourth and final significance of Schopenhauer’s theory that the human body and self are objectification of the Will is recognizing that the Will protects and hides itself within the human mind. This makes it very difficult for the Will’s constituent elements, i.e individual humans, to see through its machinations and resist their compulsive urgings – and, even if we could, that would just be a manifestation of Will as well. For Schopenhauer, of course, this insight added to his view of human life as a punishment.
One more versed in the tenets of the Western philosophical tradition or less familiar with those of the Eastern tradition might argue with Schopenhauer on more fundamental or structural philosophical grounds, perhaps proclaiming logical incongruities to his system. I instead accept most of his philosophy but take issue with his pessimism, viewing it as his personal subjective experience that need not be seen as universal.
In Medieval times, the followers of St. Thomas Aquinas argued that God was characterized by being, while those of John Duns Scotus maintained that the central divine attribute is will. I maintain that whether one experiences reality as characterized -by, placid, serene being or by compulsive, driven Will is entirely a subjective matter. The entertainer-philosopher Alan Watts used to say that the Universe is a Jumbo-sized Rorschach blot, there for each of us to see what meaning our mind subjectively creates from among its nebulous churnings. Even Schopenhauer’s own theories assumed different perceptions of environment, concomitant with various psychological states.
My background as a psychology major leads me to the hypothesis that Schopenhauer’s “diabolical mysticism” (as William James called negatively valenced unitive insights) may have been a manifestation of the effects his own unfortunate and traumatizing early life and of his later curtailed, alienated existence, and not of any fiendish nature to the forces of the universe. He appears, unfortunately, to have adopted the pantheism and the worldly disillusionment of Asian religions without understanding or employing the meditation, yoga, working with a teacher, and other in-the-world action-oriented devotional practices. Had he engaged these practices, Schopenhauer could have seen a unitary wholeness to existence while also hypothetically lessening the compulsiveness of his sexual drive and other such drives that seem to have played a controlling, suffering-inducing experience in his life, and brought him to mistrust human existence per se. Perhaps if Schopenhauer had adopted Asian religious practices, he would have been brought to a less suspicious and more pleasant experience of the universal essence and individual will-to-exist that he reproached under the label “Will”.