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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1765

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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 thing in itself, the object as it actually is. This insight, Kant’s “Copernican revolution” of philosophy, shifts the locus of reality from the external world typically thought of as real to the consciousness of the subject perceiving this world. The perceiver is forever cut off from the thing perceived, for immediate experience is only that of the perceiver’s perception of the thing. Consequently, people know no other world than that subjective world that is placed before their own perception and understanding; as the Upanishads maintain, the world thought of as real is actually mere appearance. In fact, the word Vorstellung in Schopenhauer’s title is sometimes translated as “representation” rather than “idea,” for that which is present in the consciousness of the perceiving subject is a mere representation of the object itself.

Accepting this line of thought led Schopenhauer to the startling assertion with which he opens his book: “The world is my idea.” He goes on to explain, This is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though man alone can bring it into reflective and abstract consciousness. If he really does this, he has attained to philosophical wisdom. It then becomes clear and certain to him that what he knows is not a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world which surrounds him is there only as an idea, i.e., only in relation to something else, the consciousness, which is himself.

The intellect, according to Schopenhauer, organizes the body’s perceptions into the world in which it lives, and thus “the whole world of objects is and remains idea, and therefore wholly and forever determined by the subject.” This does not mean that the universe of experience does not objectively exist or that it is not somehow created by the perceiving subject. Schopenhauer follows Kant in distinguishing between mere sensory impressions and the intellectual understanding that converts these impressions into ideas. The external world must actually exist, for the intellect would lie dormant were it not stimulated into activity by the body’s perception of itself and its place in the external universe.

All of this is equally true of every consciousness, including animal consciousness. What sets humans apart from animals is the capacity for “reflective and abstract consciousness,” that is, reason, which enables humans to transcend the universe of things and to achieve inner quiet and calm as they contemplate the world of suffering.

In book 2, Schopenhauer carries his argument beyond the philosophy of Kant, who, holding that the “inner nature” of things is forever sealed to human understanding, never identifies the Ding an sich. According to Schopenhauer, however, this can only be identified with the will, for the awareness that people possess of themselves as will is quite distinct from the awareness that they possess of themselves as body or thing. People know themselves in two primary ways: as bodily objects, no different in any respect from the world of objects with which they interact, and as self-directing beings whose actions are the embodiment of the will’s direction. The operation of the will and the operation of the body thus appear to be one and the same, although they can be contemplated separately for the purpose of analysis; the body is the objectified will. In knowing themselves as such unified beings, such objectifications of the autonomous will, people know themselves to be irreducible, the Ding an sich, which thereby stands revealed as the will in their own consciousness.

If this principle is applied not merely to humanity but to all phenomena (Schopenhauer’s “great extension”), the universe becomes a much different place from that described by more traditional metaphysics. From its least significant aspect to its greatest, the universe as a macrocosm takes on the character of will ascribed to the microcosmic human. The reality behind the phenomenal universe becomes not rational, not orderly or designed, but nonrational, nondesigned, purposeless, and meaningless, the endless striving and conflict of wills. If this is indeed the state of affairs—if the thing in itself behind reality is in fact the will—then all philosophies that purport to find meaning, purpose, or design behind natural and human history (such as the philosophy of Schopenhauer’s archrival Hegel) are delusory, and the real purpose of philosophy is to reveal the grim and stark nature of the universe and of the human condition. Thus, Schopenhauer’s profound pessimism would have a metaphysical justification.

In book 3, Schopenhauer uses this doctrine of the will to help explain his theories of art. Schopenhauer places a higher importance on art and the artist than any other modern philosopher, for he believes that it is by means of art that humanity is enabled to separate itself from and transcend the world of will and conflict. In contemplating a work of art, observers enter a disinterested state of will-less perception that is quite different from the ordinary perception of sensory impressions; they escape for a time from the ordinary struggles and desires of life and disappear into or become one with the “permanent essential forms of the world and all its phenomena.” In thus adapting Plato’s Ideal Forms, Schopenhauer considers artistic knowledge more valuable than scientific knowledge, for that concerns itself with the shifting and imperfect appearance of reality conveyed by sensory impression, while artistic knowledge penetrates to the archetypal reality behind the appearance. In particular, the artistic expression known as music dispenses with all forms of surface appearance and grants immediate access to its subject, the will itself.

Finally, in book 4, Schopenhauer explores the implications of this will-less perception, this disappearance from the world of strife, particularly as presented in the Hindu formula Tat tvam asi (“That art thou”). When the world of sensory impressions is rejected as mere appearance, the recognition of the illusory nature of surface phenomena enables a person to perceive the deeper underlying unity among all things. Desire and the individual will are renounced, even to the extent of renouncing the will to live.

This renunciation does not lead to suicide, for suicide would also imply desire or will (the desire or will for death). Rather, this renunciation leads to a peaceful state of freedom from the will’s demands, in which the subject “draws less distinction between” him- or herself and others “than is usually done” and is enabled to rise above the meaningless universe in a state of mystical insight. According to Schopenhauer, to accept this philosophy would lead to humanity’s ultimate triumph.