(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The three volumes of The World as Will and Idea constitute Arthur Schopenhauer’s major contribution to the literature of philosophy. At the time of the book’s writing, the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, with its vision of the dialectic process underlying the tensions and currents of human history, held sway over the thinking of many.

The European rationalists, led by the formidable figure of René Descartes, had previously promoted an optimistic view of the almost limitless possibilities of penetrating the nature of reality by means of human reason. Contrary to the Hegelian vision and to rationalist hopefulness, Schopenhauer maintained a fierce pessimism about the limitations of human knowledge and certainty. Even though The World as Will and Idea sold poorly and aroused little interest at the time of its first publication, the thought behind the book, carried forward as it is by Schopenhauer’s strongly individualistic and wide-ranging literary style, remains a weighty counterbalance to Enlightenment-era optimism and assurance.

Schopenhauer’s philosophy has at times been considered by critics to be an elaborate metaphysical justification for a profoundly pessimistic and gloomy temperament brought about by several factors. While Schopenhauer was still in his teens, his father died, apparently by suicide, and a serious disagreement with his mother continued throughout his adult life. He also experienced early frustrations in both the business and academic worlds; these continued throughout his publishing and lecturing career until late in life, when his two-volume collection of essays, Parerga und Paralipomena (1851; English translation, 1974), 1974) brought him a following and a measure of fame that increased steadily for the remainder of his life. Even though gratified by his late success, Schopenhauer considered his earlier work, especially The World as Will and Idea, his primary philosophical statement, despite its poor reception, and never entertained doubts as to its worth: “Subject to the limitation of human knowledge,” he wrote, “my philosophy is the real solution of the enigma of the world.”

Volume 1 of The World as Will and Idea is divided into four books, two dealing with “The World as Idea” (books 1 and 3) and two with “The World as Will” (books 2 and 4). Volume 2 consists of supplements to books 1 and 2, while volume 3 presents supplements to books 2 through 4. In addition, volume 2 contains an extensive criticism of certain points of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who remained, however, the philosopher whom Schopenhauer admired most and was influenced by to the greatest degree. In his original preface, Schopenhauer said of Kant’s works that “the effect these writings produce in the mind to which they truly speak is very like that of the operation for cataracts on a blind man.” In his preface to the revised version of the book, Schopenhauer repeated his praise: “Kant’s teaching produces in the mind of every one who has comprehended it a fundamental change that is so great that it may be regarded as an intellectual new birth.”

Two other major influences on Schopenhauer’s philosophy were the metaphysical idealism of Plato and, somewhat surprisingly, the Eastern philosophy in the Upanishads, a portion of the Hindu scriptures. To Schopenhauer, the “greatest advantage” the nineteenth century held over previous centuries was the new availability in European languages of the “sacred, primitive Indian wisdom” contained in Sanskrit literature. In volume 2, he confesses that next to the impression of the world of perception, I owe what is best in my own system to the impression made on me by the works of Kant, by the sacred writings of the Hindus, and by Plato.

What all three of these influences have in common is a rather pessimistic view of the possibilities of human knowledge of reality. In particular, Kant’s conception of the Ding an sich, the “thing in itself,” is crucial to an understanding of Schopenhauer’s work. The Ding an sich is that aspect of existence that lies beyond all human perception, since according to Kant people only know their own perceptions and understandings of objects in the world; they can never know the...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)