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:
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Hobbes was one of the founders of modern political philosophy. He wrote that citizens had to transfer some of their freedom in exchange for protection and security from the sovereign authority. In this way, they have entered into a kind of social contract. Without government, people would find themselves in conflicts.
Treatise of Government by John Locke (1632-1704)
Locke helped to establish the first fully formed, secular theory of human rights with his work, Treatise of Government (1690). He started with the idea that in a state of nature, free from external authority, people had a duty to protect themselves and not to do harm to others. He contended that when society is formed, a government is set up to determine the disputes between people if these rights and duties are not obeyed and respected. Locke saw civil government as the means to enforce laws and to settle disputes as long as they didn’t infringe the trust placed in them by citizens. Since the government exists by the consent of the people to promote the good for its citizens, any government that failed to do so should be removed.
A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume (1711–76)
Widely known for his humanitarianism and philosophical scepticism, Hume’s philosophy was a form of empiricism. He rejected speculative philosophy and theology and all claims to truth that lay outside human experience. The basis for knowledge, he argued, lay only in the experience of the senses. Hume’s most enduring work is A Treatise of Human Nature in which he advocates the scientific study of human nature as a means of understanding and improving society. Such study, Hume argued, would provide the basis for a secular morality and for a society ruled by justice and reason.
The Social Contract by Rousseau (1712-1778)
Born in Geneva in 1712, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a visionary and revolutionary philosopher and writer. He opens The Social Contract with the dramatic opening line ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains’. Rousseau asserts that the authority of the state can only be legitimate if it comes from the will of the people. The book’s ideas exert a considerable influence on the French Revolution and on the development of modern principles of human rights.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith (1723 -1790)
Smith was an eminent Scottish moral philosopher and the founder of modern economics, best-known for his book The Wealth of Nations (1776) which was highly influential in the development of Western capitalism. In it, he outlined the theory of the division of labour and proposed the theory of laissez-faire. Hence instead of mercantilism, Smith believed that government should not interfere in economic affairs as free trade increased wealth.
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Paine was another important figure in the history of the French and American Revolutions, best known for his works, Common Sense (1776) and The American Crisis (1776-1783). His ideas were rooted in the theories of Locke and Rousseau. In The Rights of Man, Paine turned his attention to the French Revolution to examine the nature of human rights. As a champion of democracy and republicanism, he reasoned that an ideal government is one that would support mankind’s unalienable natural rights (life, liberty, free speech, and freedom of conscience) and that a revolution was permissible if the state failed to benefit its people.
The Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Mary Wollstonecraft’s The Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a powerful and ground- breaking work of feminist literature and philosophy. In it, she argued for reform of women’s education, and an increase in women’s contribution to society. Wollstonecraft saw that the prevailing pedagogical theories were turning women into feminine beings, ill-prepared for life vicissitudes. She wanted women to become rational and independent beings, whose sense of self came from the development of their mind rather than a mirror.
On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)
John Stuart Mill was one of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth-century and an advocate of utilitarianism, a theory based on the works of Jeremy Bentham. His book On Liberty (1859) made him famous as a defender of human rights. He argued for the right of the people to live as they wished as long as they didn’t do harm to others. Mill also believed that happiness was the basis for morality and encouraged any action which maximised the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Mill was the leading liberal feminist of his day. He defended the rights of women on equal terms with men in The Subjection of Women (1869) and proposed measures such as votes for women. As with On Liberty, Mill stated that his views on the emancipation of women were deeply influenced by his wife, Harriet Taylor, an early advocate of women’s rights.
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.