This September, OUP Philosophy honors Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) as the Philosopher of the Month. Schopenhauer was largely ignored by the academic philosophical community during his lifetime, but gained recognition and fame posthumously. He arrived at his philosophical position very early on and his philosophy can be seen as a synthesis of Plato and Kant, whom he greatly admired, along with the Upanishads and Buddhist literatures.
Schopenhauer only wrote one seminal work of philosophy, The World as Will and Representation, which he published in 1818. The work was intended as a continuation of Kant’s ‘transcendental idealism’: ‘My philosophy is founded on that of Kant, and therefore presupposes a thorough knowledge of it.’ Kant argued that the world is not the ‘thing-in-itself’, but rather a complex of mere appearances. Schopenhauer, however, tells us that the world must be viewed at a deeper level, as will. What determines and governs our actions is will – a range of emotions and desires which result in actions. The world as Will in reality, according to Schopenhauer, is pure willing or a blind force/craving in the sense that it is undirected, futile, illogical and unmotivated. For this reason, Schopenhauer was known for being the philosopher of pessimism. The world as Will is thus objectified as driven by the desire to survive at the expense of others. The human condition is characterized by universal conflict, envy, competition, opposition and above all suffering.
Schopenhauer did, however, offer ways to escape this suffering; one temporary and the other permanent. A temporary solution is through aesthetic contemplation, whereby our faculty of knowledge stops oneself from perceiving the world as just representation and allows one to be fully immersed in the beauty and sublime nature of art.
The permanent solution comes when we become so aware of our sufferings as a result of ‘will’ or ‘blind urging with no directed object’ that we relinquish our desires for satisfaction, pleasure and gratifications, and eventually our craving for life. Like an ascetic, one who gains this intuitive knowledge is no longer concerned with worldly matters or materials. Schopenhauer also advocates compassion for the suffering of others as an important driving force in altruistic behaviour.
Schopenhauer exerted a considerable influence on late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century writers, artists, and thinkers, such as Tolstoy, Turgenev, Maupassant, Wagner, Nietzsche, Proust, Hardy, Conrad, Mann, Joyce, and Beckett.
For more on Schopenhauer’s life and work, browse our interactive slideshow below:
Schopenhauer was born in 1788, in the city of Danzig to a wealthy family of German-Dutch origins. He was the son of Johanna Schopenhauer (née Trosiener) and a rich merchant, Heinrich Floris Schopenhauer, and had one sister. His father moved the family to Hamburg in 1793, which was then a free republican city protected by Britain and Holland against Prussian invasion. Tragedy occurred in 1805 when his father died by drowning in a canal by their home in Hamburg. This affected Schopenhauer so much that he developed anxiety and depression at that very young age.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Johanna moved with her daughter Adele to Weimar, a centre of literary culture. Schopenhauer remained in Hamburg to take up a merchant apprenticeship for two years in memory of his dead father and found the training very tedious. He didn’t undertake a formal academic education and regretted the choice. He later spent some time studying at the Gotha gymnasium in Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg.
Living in Weimar
Schopenhauer moved to Weimar in 1809 to be close to his mother, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Johanna by that time had started a literary career and had established a popular salon frequented by intellectuals of the day and writers such as Goethe, Wieland, and Friedrich. Arthur didn’t move in with his mother but stayed with a German classical scholar, Franz Passow, who held a professorship at the Weimar gymnasium.
University Education in Philosophy
Schopenhauer enrolled as a student at the University of Göttingen in 1809, a university of science and medicine. He studied metaphysics, psychology, and logic under the direction of the Gottlob Ernst Schulze, a German philosopher in the tradition of Kant. He continued his philosophical studies at the University of Berlin between 1811-1812. During this period he read and studied intensively the works of German and English philosophers such as Schelling, Fries, Jacobi, Bacon, and Locke, while supplementing his reading with scientific literatures.
Schopenhauer moved to Rudolstadt in 1813 due to fear of the war against France, and wrote the dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, considered an important work for laying out the powerful principle that everything must have a reason and a cause. Republished in 1847, it articulated the central concern that would dominate his later work.
Friendship with Goethe
The work made a strong impression on Goethe, who was Schopenhauer’s intellectual hero. The two developed an intellectual friendship for a brief period and met to discuss Goethe’s newly published work on colour theory, Theory of Colours, of 1810. Schopenhauer published his own treatise, On Vision and Colours, in 1816 but his disagreement with some of Goethe’s views in the book caused Goethe to distance himself from the philosopher.
Interest in Eastern Philosophy
The philosopher was introduced to Eastern Philosophy during his stay in Weimar when he became acquainted with Friedrich Majer, a historian of oriental religion and a follower of Johann Gottfried Herder. He showed interests in the Upanishads and Buddha.
Published The World as Will and Representation in 1818
Schopenhauer moved to Dresden in May 1814 and in 1818 he published his seminal philosophical work, The World as Will and Representation, a summation of Kant’s transcendental idealism.
He had a brief and unsuccessful academic position at the University of Berlin, where G.W.F. Hegel lectured. After the failure of his academic career, Schopenhauer travelled extensively across Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. During his stay in Munich, his health suffered. He tried to find work by contacting his publisher, offering to translate the works of David Hume into German and Kant into English, but was rejected. In Frankfurt, he suffered a period of depression and ill health and remained there for the rest of his life. He died in 1860 of respiratory failure.
Featured image credit: Frankfurt on the Main: Saalhof as seen from the Eiserner Steg (Iron Bridge), in the background the spire of Frankfurt Cathedral. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia.