The World as Will and Idea

by Arthur Schopenhauer

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.


The first edition of Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation saw light in 1819 as a one-volume book. This edition consisted of four books dealing with epistemology, ontology, aesthetics, and ethics, respectively. In the expanded edition of 1844, the second volume was added, which comprised various supplements to his original books.

Plot Summary

In his Preface to the first edition, Schopenhauer says that his work is to function as a single thought—and in order to properly understand it, the reader needs to be familiar with the three sources: Plato, Kant, and the Upanishads.

In the first book (Epistemology), Schopenhauer states, "The world is my representation" (3). This is true of all living beings, but it is only people who can bring this truth into reflective consciousness: that is, we can not only observe the world around us but also consciously reflect on our observations. Each person's world, in effect, is their own creation (though this interpretation is based on the Kantian "thing-in-itself," or those forms which are there for us to perceive).

The world as a conscious representation is the starting point for philosophical discernment; it expresses the "form of all the possible and conceivable experience" (3). All that exists is only object, a representation, in contrast to the knowing subject—as in the human, who can exert agency on their own interpretation and representation of the objects around them. The subject knows all things and is known by none. Everyone is this subject, Schopenhauer says, but our bodies are also objects and representations: thus, we can perceive ourselves as we perceive other things in the world.

Schopenhauer divides representations into two categories: intuitive (determined by time, space, and causality) and abstract (determined by reason). For him, matter is nothing but causality.

In his second book (Ontology), it is stated that the world is an expression of will, which he defines as man's true nature. Schopenhauer explains that

The action of the body is nothing but the act of will objectified, i.e., translated into perception . . . the will is knowledge a priori of the body, and . . . the body is knowledge a posteriori of the will (100).

Schopenhauer insists on the primacy of the will over the intellect. According to him, the will represents man's authentic nature, while the intellect is its manifestation. He claims that

[all] knowing is associated with effort and exertion; willing, on the contrary, is our very nature, whose manifestations occur without any weariness and entirely of their own accord (211).

The second book illuminates the concept that intellect, or knowledge, is subordinate to man's will. Furthermore, Schopenhauer paints a dreary image of human existence, claiming that individual's lives are riddled with unfulfilled desires, which cause pain; most desires remain unfulfilled throughout an individual's life.

In the third book (Aesthetics), he talks about the world as representation. Diverse manifestations of the single will are to be identified with Platonic realism and Kant’s "thing-in-itself." The individual as such knows only separate things, while the pure subject is able to be familiar with ideas. The genius knows ideas and becomes the pure subject of knowing—they are able to communicate these ideas to other people.

The fourth book (Ethics) deals with the world as will and presents a philosophy of practical life. According to Schopenhauer, the very fabric of life is suffering. The affirmation of the will-to-live expresses itself in selfishness and injustice.

Recognizing the inner nature of the world as will and all its phenomena only as objectivity of that will, Schopenhauer comes to the conclusion that “with the free denial, the surrender, of the will, all those phenomena also are now abolished (410)." For those who are still full of the will, nothing remains after the complete undoing of the will. On the contrary, to those in whom this will denied itself, the whole world is nothing. This is the practical outcome of Schopenhauer’s reflection on the world as will and representation.

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