Arthur Schopenhauer Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Arthur Schopenhauer 1788-1860

German philosopher.

Believing himself to be the only worthy successor to Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer was one of the leading German metaphysicians of the nineteenth century. Schopenhauer conceived of Kant's ding an sich as an absolute Will that causes and impels all appearances in the phenomenal (and unreal) world. Schopenhauer incorporated Hindu and Buddhist thought into his philosophy and crystallized the pessimism of the late nineteenth century in his rejection of the apparent world and his endorsement of asceticism.

Biographical Information

Schopenhauer was born in Danzig (now Gdansk). His father, a businessman, and his mother, a popular novelist, moved the family to Hamburg when Danzig was annexed to Prussia in 1793. The elder Schopenhauer died in 1805, probably by suicide. To honor a promise to his father, Schopenhauer began a business career, but after a year, he convinced his mother to let him continue his education at the gymnasium in Gotha, where he studied Greek and Latin. After being expelled for improper conduct, Schopenhauer moved to Weimar, where his mother had established a literary salon frequented by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and other literary figures. In 1809, Schopenhauer enrolled in the University of Göttingen, where he studied medicine and, later, philosophy. While there, the skeptic Gottlob Ernst Schulze encouraged him to read Plato and Kant. The orientalist Friedrich Mayer also introduced him to the Upanishads and various Buddhist texts. Continuing his studies at the University of Berlin in 1811, Schopenhauer attended lectures by professed Kantians Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schopenhauer resented what he considered to be their misinterpretation of Kant; thus he began a lifelong antagonism toward academic philosophy. Schopenhauer left Berlin when the Prussians rose against the French in 1813. He submitted his dissertation, Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde (On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason), to the University of Jena, where he graduated in 1813. The work was praised by Goethe, and Schopenhauer returned to Weimar to collaborate with him on a study of anti-Newtonian color theory. Goethe disapproved of Schopenhauer's manuscript, however, so Schopenhauer independently published Über das Sehn und die Farben in 1816. After quarreling with his mother, Schopenhauer left Weimar in 1814 and never saw her again. From 1814 to 1818 Schopenhauer lived in Dresden and wrote his most acclaimed work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation). The book garnered little critical interest when it was published in 1818, but with three of his works already published, Schopenhauer was awarded a lectureship in philosophy at the University of Berlin in 1820. Scheduling his lectures to coincide with those of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whom he despised, Schopenhauer tried to discredit him and proselytize his admirers. Hegel was then at his most popular, however, and with no audience for Schopenhauer, he was soon dismissed. Schopenhauer lived in Italy for ten years before returning to Berlin to answer a charge of battery against a woman. He moved to Frankfiirt-am-Main in 1831 to escape a cholera epidemic—from which Hegel died—and rarely left Frankfurt after 1833. Schopenhauer continued to write and became fairly popular when he published Parerga und Paralipomena in 1851. Critical recognition followed, and by the time of his death in 1860, Schopenhauer was one of the best known philosophers in Europe.

Major Works

Schopenhauer considered his first published work—Über die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde—to be the proper introduction to his thought. In it, Schopenhauer contended that human knowledge presupposes the unprovable assumption that everything must have a ground or reason. Schopenhauer's greatest achievement, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, published in 1818, outlines his contention that the world is but a phenomenal expression of the irrational and all-encompassing Will. The Will enslaves the human intellect to such impulses as the emotions, the sex drive, and the subconscious. According to Schopenhauer, people ought to transcend appearances through artistic contemplation and negate the Will through asceticism. Later works generally bolster his central metaphysical arguments. For example, his Über den Willen in der Natur (The Will in Nature) insists that his philosophy is supported by the empirical sciences, and Die beiden Grundprobleme der Ethik (On the Basis of Morality) addresses the problem of freedom and determinism. In 1844 he published a revised edition of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, with fifty supplementary chapters, almost doubling the size of the 1818 edition.

Critical Reception

Critics largely ignored Schopenhauer's writings until late in his life. The essays of Parerga und Paralipomena were more approachable than the intimidating Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung and appealed to popular pessimistic sentiment. Positive reviews, especially a Westminster Review article from 1853, popularized Schopenhauer's philosophy and evinced favorable reactions throughout Europe. Schopenhauer's main influence thus was posthumous, but appealed to such artists, cultural critics, and philosophers as Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Richard Wagner, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Although twentieth-century analytic philosophers have shown little interest, Schopenhauer infused modern thought with a pessimism and irrationalism that helped shape nineteenth- and twentieth-century letters.