Picking up where Immanuel Kant left off, Arthur Schopenhauer believed that all phenomena is representation (or idea, depending on your translation), beyond which lies the “Will to Life,” constituting the un-knowable, but nevertheless inferable, “thing-in-itself.” Thus, for Schopenhauer, all reality is Will. The objects, entities, and even ourselves that we perceive in the phenomenal world are thus nothing more than the objective expression of will.
What does Schopenhauer say about the Will to Life? To begin with, it is not Kant’s “free will,” but rather may be analogized to a universal energy force, perpetuating itself indefinitely through its objective expressions in the phenomenal world. It is blind and indifferent, and exists outside the parameters of space and time, and thus is the universal underlying reality of all existence.
Will for Schopenhauer is never our “individual will,” but rather the other way around: we are nothing but empty vessels by which Will works through us. Accordingly, the Will to Life is entirely indifferent to our existence, our needs, and our desires. We are both objects of the will (body) and subjects (mind). We experience our individuation only in the world of phenomena. But underneath we are all mere cogs in the endless cycle of Will. Thus, for Schopenhauer, when we die, it is only our phenomenal individuation and personality that ceases to be; but the Will, as thing itself and constitutive source of our being, continues on indefinitely.
We have the ability to infer our relationship to Will by reflecting on the way in which we, as conscious subjects, become aware of ourselves through our own willing. By reflecting on the essential force that motivates all human behavior and activity, we come to have an understanding (in the non-technical sense of that word) of our fundamental relationship to the Will to Life. For its part, the Will to Life is the source of all desire and motivation, and in this sense, is responsible for the ubiquitous human suffering in the world. Thus, all desiring is illogical, purposeless, and ultimately doomed to disappointment. Schopenhauer’s notorious pessimism is accordingly inextricably linked to his metaphysics, and thus making him the premier metaphysical pessimist.
But even for the deeply pessimistic Schopenhauer, we are afforded two options to escape the endless vanity of existence perpetuated by the Will to Life: first, in aesthetic experience; and secondly, through aestheticism.
For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience offers a temporary reprieve from our tedious and pointless existence. When we partake in aesthetic experience, we essentially suspend our wills, and become will-less subjects of knowledge. When we undergo an aesthetic experience, we escape the perceptual world of representation, and thus escape time, space, and causality. In this sense, we break free from the phenomenal world of space, time, and causality and instead become immersed with the abstract form in a state of contemplation. Accordingly, we no longer perceive ourselves as individuals suffering in the world due to Will; but rather, “pure, will-less, timeless” “subjects of cognition.”
Music, for Schopenhauer, offers the highest type of aesthetic release from the Will. This is possible because music itself is the most pure form of art, depicting the Will to Life itself, rather than representation of given objects of perception.
But it is impossible for the individual to completely suspend himself indefinitely in contemplative aesthetic experience. At some point or another, he must resort back to the banality and misery of his willing existence. In order to truly break free from the Will, Schopenhauer proposes that we must completely deny the Will itself in a complete renunciation of willing and desiring. Thus, only a total and complete asceticism can relieve us from the miserable wretchedness of the plight of existence.
Schopenhauer saw himself as a firm student in the Kantian tradition of Transcendental Idealism; but at the same time went beyond Kant and, in many respects, explained and condensed Kant’s own philosophy better than Kant did. He had a profound impact on later German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose early works, particularly The Birth of Tragedy express an overt indebtedness to Arthur Schopenhauer. And although Nietzsche later abandoned his explicit Schopenhauerian roots, Nietzsche never fully escaped the latter’s influence, even if it became a negative influence.
Schopenhauer is also renowned for being the first major Western thinker to take an active interest in Eastern Philosophy. During his youth, but after arriving at his own philosophical conclusions independently, Schopenhauer was introduced to both Buddhist and Hindu thought. He saw within these traditions a peculiar affinity with his own philosophy of the world.
Schopenhauer, who was a contemporary of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, also foreshadowed many themes and topics which would later be picked up by Kierkegaard’s existentialist descendants, including his concern with boredom, freedom, choice and responsibility, and questioning our notions of historical progress.