Part III: Death, Chance, and Two Origins of Schopenhauer’s Idealism
The Two Origins of Schopenhauer’s Pure Idealism
Schopenhauer identifies Vedanta philosophy from India as a source for his inspiration. He reads Vyasa metaphysically for how matter and mind relate. That correction is embodied when he quotes Sir William Jones from his essay, “On the philosophy of the Asiatics,” to argue that metaphysical idealism consists:
“not in denying the existence of matter, […] but in correcting the popular notion of it, and in contending that it has no essence independent of mental perception.” (1960, p. 649) (originally Asiatic Researches, Vol. IV., p. 164).
The essence of matter is its existing as an object of perception. Learning from this, Schopenhauer writes how the essence of matter depends on perception. He founds his philosophy on the principle that matter and mind have that dependent relationship.
In his book, The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer argues how “Kant’s primary mistake was the neglect of this principle,” that the world is the “perception of a perceiver, in a word, idea” (Schopenhauer, section 1). In that relation between perceiver and perception, it makes sense to say, as Schopenhauer does: “The world is my idea” since the world exists for the subject (section 1).
“All that in any way belongs or can belong to the world is inevitably thus conditioned through the subject, and exists only for the subject. The world is idea” (The World as Will and Idea, section 1, translated by Haldane and Kemp 1928).
If the mind only perceives its own ideas, then the perceiver never experiences matter as matter, but only as idea. Even the body is first an idea since it is an object of perception to the subject (section 2). To Schopenhauer, the subject “is the supporter of the world, that condition of all phenomena, of all objects” (section 2). The subject, then, is the precondition for all possible experience in the sense of being a priori to experience argued in Kant’s idealism.
The Second Origin
The distinction of mental perception from the material world is an idealist argument Schopenhauer attributes to George Berkeley. Both philosophers recognize and challenge the way we ordinarily assume material things exist independently of our perceiving them.
In his book, Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, Berkeley provides his theory of pure idealism. For this, he asks, “whether you can conceive it possible for a sound, or figure, or motion, or colour to exist without the mind or unperceived,” arguing how we could not, since it is a “downright contradiction” to attribute existence to what is unperceived (Berkeley, section 22). His argument denies that we have any knowledge of objects as matter. Instead, we could never have any knowledge of such “unperceived” things since that would entail a contradiction.
When we perceive the world, we also speculate more than we can sense. Seeing some color or shape, we infer the existence of matter behind those properties. Berkeley contests this inference since material objects are, he writes, “unperceived” by our senses. Only the idea is experienced directly, never any objects themselves. Since ideas do not exist outside the mind, the sensed object does not exist independently of perception.
Berkeley equates existence with perception. His principle for material objects is as follows: “Their esse is percipi” (Berkeley, Part I, section 3). That is to say, to be is to be perceived. In his arrangement, all knowledge derives from perception.
In his metaphysical idealism, Schopenhauer argues for a “compatibility” between “empirical reality” and “transcendental ideality.” To him, the human is a mixture of mind and matter. Neither mind nor matter are less real than the other. So the world too is a composite of what is empirical and transcendental.
He writes that, “if we look at it from the physical side […] the life of our body is only a constantly prevented dying” (section 57). If the body is an empirical reality, then it faces death as a transcendental idea. When Hegel’s subject realizes the idea of freedom, then Schopenhauer’s subject is realized in death.
Death and Chance Against Hegel‘s Freedom of Will
Schopenhauer’s world consists in two aspects as will and idea. The world is exhausted by these two categories, and has no existence independent of will and idea.
The will is strictly impersonal. It knows and senses everything. If the world “exists for knowledge,” then, “this whole world, is only object in relation to subject” (section 1). As the subject of this infinite striving, the world as will is the knower, which Schopenhauer identifies with the perceiver of the world.
In Schopenhauer’s view, will is what he calls “the inner being of unconscious nature” whose essence is a “constant striving without end” (Schopenhauer, section 57). By striving in vain, will is not free, it is not even conscious.
Will is not identical to consciousness but with “reflective and abstract consciousness” (section 1). We live without purpose in a struggle against the world’s infinite reserve of resistance.
Although the Earth teems with life, death is an ever-present force, “intruding upon us,” since life itself is only “an ever-postponed death” (section 57). We live haphazardly by avoiding death just as much “as our walking is admittedly merely a constantly prevented falling” (ibid.). Life is prevented dying and that is all.
The world outlook of Schopenhauer is pessimistic since the world as will strives in vain. What is most common in the world is the basic impulse for struggle against death.
In the infinite striving of will, he sees no progress. To him, “this human world is the kingdom of chance and error” (section 59). Rather than progress, the world of chance excludes any guarantee for development. Life’s achievements in intellect and art are impermanent.
That the world owes more of its nature to chance than reason is a direct critique of Hegel’s realization of freedom promised in spirit. To Schopenhauer, chance makes unfreedom. To Hegel, chance is freedom. Where, for Hegel, freedom is the truth of subject, for Schopenhauer, the natural truth of life is death. To him, life only develops precisely as far as it returns to death.
In his view, chance is not evidence for freedom. Schopenhauer writes: “In the end, death must conquer, for we became subject to him through birth, and he only plays for a little while with his prey before he swallows it up” (Schopenhauer, section 57). In his world, life moves on a closed-circuit towards death. That death determines a transcendental ideality.
Berkeley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. 2002. Originally 1710.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea. Translated by R.B. Haldane and J. Kemp in 1928. Accessed in The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche. Edited by Monroe C. Beardsley. 1960.