Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On Schopenhauer and Existence

"The scenes of our life resemble pictures in a rough mosaic; they are ineffective from close up, and have to be viewed from a distance if they are to seem beautiful. This is why to attain something desired is to discover how vain it is; and why, though we live all our lives in expectation of better things, we often at the same time long regretfully for what is past. The present, on the other hand, is regarded as something quite transient and serving only as the road to our goal. That is why most men discover when they look back on their life that they have the whole time been living ad interim (in or for the meantime; temporarily), and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived"

"In our early youth we sit before the life that lies ahead of us like children sitting before the curtain in a theatre, in happy and tense anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear. For to him who does know, children can sometimes seem like innocent delinquents, sentenced not to death but to life, who have not yet discovered what their punishment will consist of. Nonetheless, everyone desires to achieve old age, that is to say a condition in which one can say: 'Today it is bad, and day by day it will get worse - until at last the worst of all arrives.'"

Today, using the birthday money I received, I bought a book: Arthur Schopenhauer's Essays and Aphorisms. I throughly enjoy this man. Considered a 'proto-existentialist', he helped establish the philosophical movement that guys like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche would later take up.

I read his master work The World as Will and Idea, which was essentially a response to Kant's conception of the things-as-appearances and the things-in-themselves. Kant claimed that we have no access to things-in-themselves, and so we only perceive the world as things-as-appearances. Essentially, the world is a construct of our perceptions that are ordered by the natural laws of space, time, and causality. We have no free will because all appearances (any things we can have access to) are subject to the laws of cause and effect. I am not actually touching the desk or computer in-themselves, but only the mere appearance of them.

This paints existence in a very negative light. We have no free will and nothing is actually real; well, we can't have access to anything 'real', only it's appearance. This is one of the premises (there are many) that Schopenhauer's pessimism is founded on. Yet, he felt that something was missing from Kant's conclusions and set out to fix the problem. Kant alludes to this thing-in-itself very mysteriously and never commits to a real answer, only that we cannot access the thing-in-itself through our perceptions. There is one specific reference he makes to the nature of this mysterious 'thing' in the opening of The Critique of Pure Reason:

"...so the principle of causality applies to things only in the first sense (things-as-appearances), insofar as they are objects of experience, but that these same objects are not subject to that principle when taken in the second sense (things-in-themselves). On these suppositions, no contradiction arises when we think the same will in both these ways: in its appearance, as conforming necessarily to natural law and as to that extent not free; yet on the other hand, qua belonging to a thing-in-itself, as not subject to that law, and hence free."

So there. Kant seems to have begun to solve this riddle...only he never mentions any of this again. So Schopenhauer takes up the argument. He paints the 'world as idea' in the same way as Kant - all our perceptions are like 'phantom dreams'. He goes further and claims that there exists another world, a 'world as will'. Schopenhauer uses will to refer to the things-in-themselves. The will is present in all things. The body is the will, objectified. Because we, according to Schopenhauer, have this double knowledge of our body as idea and our body as we understand its movements and desires more than any other being in existence, the body is essentially the will objectified. All beings have a specific grade of the objectification of the will, with man being the highest grade. Yet, even through all this, we are still subject to the world as idea and cannot help but be trapped by the perceptions of space, time and causality. So, we are still not free in the strictest sense. Our will is free but we are not entirely will, so we have restrictions .We cannot not view the world in terms of space, time, and causality. Kant said that it is this very order of perceptions that makes perceiving possible in the first place.

A consequence of the will is it's continuous striving. The will strives and desires what it cannot have, and once it possesses it, it soon grows tired or bored and so wants something new. Is this not true for us? We want what we cannot have and once we have it we no longer want it. This constant unfulfillment is the primary cause of most of our sufferings, according to Schopenhauer. (There are many quotes in The World as Will and Idea that I could back this up with, but Katelyn Carter is borrowing it currently :) ) -- But there are some in this other book too:

"The vanity of existence is revealed in the whole form existence assumes: in the infiniteness of time and space contrasted with the finiteness of the individual in both; in the fleeting present as the sole form in which actuality exists; in the continual desire without satisfaction; in the continual frustration of striving of which life consists. Time and that perishability of all things existing in time, that time itself brings about is simply the form under which the will to live, reveals to itself the vanity of its striving. Time is that by virtue of which everything becomes nothingness in our hands and loses all real value."

Depressing, but oh so wise. Do you not agree?

These are the thoughts that have been plaguing my mind. This summer so far has been most interesting. Though I have had high points to speak of, they only lasted for certain evenings and for periods far too short. I am, through a daily progression, losing my sanity. Time is persecuting me as I fill out endless job applications, read hundreds of pages of books a day and wait patiently for something to happen. I have been forced to become very introspective lately and it is driving me up a wall. I need a job. I need money. I have neither. I cannot escape the continual pounding of failure as I keep applying only to wait in vain for a reply. Close to a hundred job applications resulting in nil. Is something wrong with me? Somedays I wonder if 'all is vanity' and if I shouldn't just hide away for the rest of my life. Or (as Sofia Cantrill and I decided) rob some banks, gather some close friends, and create and live on a commune for ourselves in the country air of Greece, provided their infrastructure doesn't collapse. So, if you have a special skill and are sick of jobs and school, then join us. We leave soon.


  1. Your blog has one post and is already more intellectual than mine. Soon I will have quotations. Just wait.

  2. Will your blog also have Kant? I think not.

    I understand the sanity thing. Except I've started my job and I'm already excited for doing nothing again tomorrow. The grass is always greener, as Sartre always said.