In his preface to the first edition of The World as Will and Idea, Arthur Schopenhauer states that his chief sources are German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Greek philosopher Plato, and the Upanishads. He does indeed blend these three into his own philosophical system, but he gives the whole his own philosophical interpretation.


In the opening book, “The World as Idea,” Schopenhauer presents his modified scheme of Kant’s “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. Kant had held that the world of phenomena that we perceive is to be understood as a world that is made known to us through various features of our understanding. Events appear to us as in space and time; for Kant, these were ultimately to be understood as forms of intuition or perception that, as it were, gave to events their spatial and temporal characteristics. In his famous analogy, the forms of intuition are the spectacles through which we view the world in its spatial and temporal aspects. In addition, we know the world in terms of traditional categories among which cause is a primary one. For Kant, these categories are also of the understanding. Thus, the world of appearances is in the final analysis one in which undifferentiated “stuff” is formed in space and time and categorized by the understanding into the related events that science studies. However, to repeat, at bottom it is a mind-formed world. Schopenhauer accepted the Kantian view of the world, and rather brilliantly reduced the twelve categories in Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) to one, that of the principle of sufficient reason (causation). This principle, with its fourfold root in science, logic, morality, and metaphysics, formed the basis of Schopenhauer’s analysis of the world of phenomena.

“The world is my idea” means, then, that the world of objects that I perceive...

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In the second book, “The World as Will,” Schopenhauer considers the reality behind the world of appearances, what had been for Kant unknowable, the thing-in-itself. It is traditional for philosophers to speculate upon the why of things, to try to understand what makes things what they are. For Schopenhauer, this question cannot be answered by searching within the world of phenomena, but only beyond that world. The key is to be found in the subject, who, as an individual, has knowledge of the external world rooted in the experience of the body—object to the self. Body is given to the individual in two ways. It is given first as an idea; an object among objects subject to the law of objects, that is, to the law of cause and effect. Second, it is given as an act of will; when the subject wills, the apparent result is a movement of the body. This aspect of Schopenhauer’s philosophy can also be found in Kant. Kant had held that for morality to be possible, the will must be autonomous and not subject to the same laws as phenomena. Otherwise our actions would be causally explainable, and hence no more morally responsible than a rolling stone’s action. As autonomous, the will is part of the noumenal world of things-in-themselves and is thus free. The result of willing, for Kant, was a physical movement subject to scientific laws, part of the world of phenomena. The cause of the movement was not itself part of the world of phenomena; hence, not a cause in the scientific sense, it was thus morally free.

The term “cause” has a curious history in philosophical works. There is a sense of cause that might be called the creative sense, that which brings an event into being and keeps it existing. In this sense, the word is often used to refer to something outside the world of events (usually a being such as God) regarded as responsible for the creation and continuity of that world. However, there is another sense of “cause” that, while not original with David Hume, has since his time been in more...

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The Artist

The third book of Schopenhauer’s work is also entitled “The World as Idea,” but “idea” is now seen as a product of reason rather than as a perceptual event. It is here that Plato’s concept of the idea or form is used by Schopenhauer, and his prime purpose is to develop his theory of art by means of it. He begins by pointing out that the will is objectified not only in the many particulars that we come to know as events in space and time, subject to change and, hence, explainable under the principle of sufficient reason; but it also manifests itself in universals, which are immutable and thus not susceptible to causal analysis. Schopenhauer holds that the will as universal presents us with a direct objectification, a Platonic form, whereas as a particular it is indirect.

How are individuals to know these direct objectifications? They may gain knowledge of them by transcending the world of events, of space and time and causality, and looking at things as they are in themselves. They do so by losing themselves in the object, by giving up their own subjectivity and becoming one with that which they perceive. In such a state, Schopenhauer holds, an individual becomes the pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge. The individual becomes a knower of ideas or forms and not of mere particulars; the object is now the Idea, the form, of the species. This seems to be something like the sort of knowledge that has been attributed to the mystic, and, no doubt, the influence of Eastern thought upon Schopenhauer can be seen here; but he likens the apprehension of forms to art. The artist repeats or reproduces Ideas grasped through pure contemplation; knowledge of the Ideas is the one source of art and its aim is the communication of this knowledge. With this in mind, we can see that Schopenhauer’s definition of “art” fits closely with his views. It is the way of knowing things independently of the principle of sufficient reason. The person of genius is one who by intuition and imagination most completely frees himself from the world of events to grasp the eternal present within it.

Schopenhauer writes that the aesthetic mode of contemplation involves two features: the object known as a Platonic idea or form and the knowing person considered not as an individual in the ordinary sense, but as a pure, will-less subject of knowledge. When the knower gives up the fourfold principle of sufficient reason as a way of knowing things and assumes the aesthetic mode of contemplation, he or she derives a peculiar pleasure from that mode in varying degrees...

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Denial of the Will

The last book is also entitled, like the second, “The World as Will,” but in the second aspect of will, Schopenhauer further examines the renunciation of the will to live. In this particular book, Schopenhauer emphasizes the Eastern religious and philosophical view of denial and renunciation. He also concentrates on the idea of life as tragic. It is interesting that Schopenhauer develops a theory of the act of generation as an assertion of the will to live. His discussion is reminiscent of Freud’s account of the libido as a general drive manifesting itself throughout humankind and accounting for much, if not all, of human behavior. Freud is supposed to have been shown the passages in Schopenhauer that were similar to his. He...

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Additional Reading

Atwell, John E. Schopenhauer on the Character of the World: The Metaphysics of Will. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Atwell’s extended analysis of The World as Will and Representation attempts, against the views of others, to establish that Arthur Schopenhauer has a metaphysics, though a severely limited one. In a closely reasoned text, Atwell delves into epistemology and ethics as well. A major feature is his discussion of the concepts of time, space, and causality. Like other explorations of will, this one gives primacy to intellect and thus unearths numerous inconsistencies.


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