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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.

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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 depends for its existence as a perceived system of things upon the mind of consciousness that perceives it. Schopenhauer follows Kant in that he distinguishes mere sense impressions from perceptions (or ideas). Sense impressions are received by the mind from the external world; through the forms of space and time and the principle of sufficient reason, the understanding gives form to sensations, making them into ideas. Because it is the understanding that makes ideas what they are, perception is essentially intellectual. The subject or conscious mind becomes aware of object or body first through sense knowledge of its own body. Schopenhauer believed that the subject infers from sense effects immediately known to the self’s body and to other bodies. It is in this way that the world of ideas is constructed.

The world of ideas may be considered in two ways. The understanding itself contains the potentiality to form a world of perceptions. However, it would remain dormant if the external world did not excite it. In this sense, then, there is an objective side to the possibility of knowing the world; the world must be capable of acting upon the subject to make perceptions possible. The subjective expression of the world, however, actually converts this possibility into a world of phenomena, for the law of causality springs from and is valid only for it. This means that the world of events as existing in space and time and causally related to one another is formed by the understanding. Additionally, the sensibility of animal bodies makes possible the body as an immediate object for the subject.

Although the understanding makes meaningful the world of objects (there would be but undifferentiated sensations otherwise), there is yet another aspect of mind that has an important role to play, and that is reason. Reason distinguishes humans from other animals in that by its use they are able to deal in abstract ideas or concepts and thus to plan, choose, and build—in general, to act prudently. If humans merely perceived the world of objects through their understanding, they would never be able to transcend and contemplate it. In the quiet life of contemplation, humans rise above the hustle and bustle of everyday activities; they can achieve stoical calm, peace, and inner harmony in a world of pain and suffering.


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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 popular use among many philosophers: that is, cause as a constant conjunction of events within the world of phenomena; what there might be outside that world as a cause of it is held to be subject not to knowledge but perhaps to faith. It is a religious sense of cause. When Kant refers to the autonomous action of the will, he refers to an action that is not part of the world of events, yet one that has a consequence there—a bodily movement. The sequence of bodily movements is a sequence of events (or ideas) that is subject to causal analysis in the second sense mentioned above; but because the will is not part of the world of phenomena, its activities are free from scientific analysis, and thus responsible. It is this sense of the Kantian notion of will that Schopenhauer accepts.

Because an act of will is known as a movement of body, which is itself an idea, Schopenhauer regards the body as objectified will. He states also that the entire world of ideas, the realm of phenomena, is but a world of objectified will. For Schopenhauer, the world of noumena is nothing but a world of will, that which is “beyond” the world of events, yet is its very ground. We also have knowledge of the noumenal world; there is a unique relationship between the subject and the body in which the subject is aware of “noumenal” willing and the resulting physical movements. It is possible to look upon the entire world of events, including other subjects known only as ideas, as one’s own world. However, Schopenhauer would not be satisfied with solipsism.

In holding that body is but objectified will, Schopenhauer argues that the various parts of the body—for example, teeth, throat, and bowels—are but expressions of will, in this case of hunger. For Schopenhauer, there is a force in all things that makes them what they are: the will. Recall, however, that phenomenally this force is not perceived; because all we know are events subject to the principle of sufficient reason, the will here is groundless. However, in self-consciousness, the will is not hidden but is known directly, and in this consciousness, we are also aware of our freedom. We are aware of an activity that cannot itself be part of the world of events that follows from that activity.

Although it has been customary in the history of philosophy for philosophers to raise questions concerning the purpose or end of existence, of creation, Schopenhauer claims that such questions are groundless. In effect they refer to the activity of the will; but the will has no purpose. It moves without cause, has no goal; it is desire itself, striving, yearning, wanting without rhyme or reason.

The Artist

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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 depending upon the aesthetic object.

Ordinarily it is difficult and, for most persons, impossible to escape from the world of desires and wants, the world that gives rise to our willing and that can never be satisfied. Our wants are without satiation; thus, suffering, frustration, and a sense of deficiency are ever-present. However, if by some external cause or inner disposition, we are raised above the cares of the daily world, our knowledge is freed from the directives of will and the temporal aspects of events, and we can achieve that transcendent state of peace, the painless state that separates the world of forms from that of suffering. This is the state of pure contemplation of which the great Greek philosophers spoke.

Artists who have attained this state and then represent it in their works allow others to escape the vicissitudes of life and to contemplate the world of forms free from the machinations of the will. These works of art are a means by which we can attain these artists’ heights. Nature, too, in certain circumstances, can present objects in such a way that we transcend the world and enter into the realm of forms. However, the slightest wavering of attention on our part returns us to the world of phenomena; we leave contemplation for desire. Aesthetic enjoyment can also be obtained in the remembrance of things past. Schopenhauer points out that individuals, in contemplating their memories, finds them freed from the immediate tinges of suffering and pain that events often have. Generally speaking, aesthetic pleasure arises whenever we are able to rise above the wants of the moment and to contemplate things-in-themselves as no longer subject to the principle of sufficient reason; pleasure arises from the opposition to will; it is the delight that comes from perceptive knowledge.

When a contemplated object takes on the Idea of its species, we hold it to be a beauty. The nineteenth century aestheticians were concerned with the sublime also; Schopenhauer sees it in the exaltation that arises when one forcibly and consciously breaks away from the world of events and enters the world of forms. The object transfigured in this contemplative act yet carries an aura of its existence as an event created by will. As such it is hostile to the perceiver, yet in being “made” into a form, it is the object of pleasure and beauty. If the hostility crowds out the beauty, then the sublime leaves. When the sublime is present, we recognize our own insignificance alongside that which we perceive, yet, Schopenhauer feels, we also recognize the dependence of the object on us as one of our ideas. We are both humble and monumental in its presence.

Tragedy is the summit of poetical art; it presents the terrible side of life, the pain and evil, the want and suffering. We see in nature the all-consuming war of will with itself. When we learn of this inner struggle through tragedy, we are no longer deceived by the phenomena about us. The ego, which is so involved in the world of events, perishes with that world as we see it for what it is. The motives that keep the will striving are gone; they are replaced by knowledge of the world. This knowledge produces a quieting effect upon the will so that resignation takes place, not a surrender merely of the things of life but of the very will to live. (This is not to be confused with a “desire” to commit suicide, which is a definite act of will tormented by the world of events; rather, it is a renunciation of all desire as one becomes one with the eternal.)

Denial of the Will

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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 claimed not to have read Schopenhauer, but he did acknowledge the similarity of the views.

Schopenhauer believed that in each phenomenal object, the will itself is present fully, in the sense that the object is the reification of the will. However, the will in its noumenal nature is most real. In inner consciousness, the individual is directly aware of the will. Individuals within the world of events, aware of pure will in themselves, desire everything for themselves. Schopenhauer believed that in this way, selfishness arises. Recall that indviduals have within themselves the entire world of phenomena as ideas as well as the world as will. Recall, too, that all other selves are known by individuals as their own ideas—thus individuals hope to have all, to control all. Thus, death ends all for individuals, although while they live they seek the world for themselves. In this eternal war with one another, people deserve the fate that the world as will has for them: a life of tragedy, of want, of pain and suffering. Ultimately, also, the will, in trying to express itself at the expense of others, punishes itself.

Only those who can rise above their principle of individuation, above the world of cause and effect, who can see the world as one of woe and suffering, can triumph over it. Once one has seen the world for what it is, there is no need to go on willing and striving. One renounces the world of ideas and of will; knowledge quiets the will. This freedom found outside the world of necessity is akin to grace, therein, believed Schopenhauer, lies one’s salvation.


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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.

Atwell, John E. Schopenhauer: The Human Character. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1990. In a topical, highly readable approach, Atwell explores Schopenhauer’s ethics. Like other critics, he presses Schopenhauer’s examples logically to the point that they break down and reveal contradictions. Major divisions concern the self, ethics, virtue, and salvation. Recognizing Schopenhauer’s inclination toward hyperbole and paradox, Atwell offers a clear interpretation of the philosopher’s concepts of virtue and ethical action.

Fox, Michael, ed. Schopenhauer: His Philosophical Achievement. Brighton, England: Harvester Press, 1980. A collection of essays by distinguished scholars. The book is divided into three sections: general articles, giving overviews of Schopenhauer; articles dealing with basic philosophical issues; and comparative studies that relate Schopenhauer’s philosophy to others’ and explore intellectual debts.

Gardiner, Patrick L. Schopenhauer. Bristol, United Kingdom: Thoemmes Press, 1997. A piercing analysis of Schopenhauer’s life and philosophy.

Hamlyn, D. W. Schopenhauer. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980. A general survey of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Clarifies his terms, explains his epistemology, and offers extensive analysis of his philosophical debt to Kant.

Jacquette, Dale, ed. Schopenhauer, Philosophy, and the Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A penetrating look at Schopenhauer’s philosophy and aesthetics.

Janaway, Christopher. Schopenhauer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Janaway’s concise though dense overview of Schopenhauer’s life and philosophical system represents an excellent introduction. Synopses of the major works are skillfully supplemented by cogent references to lesser-known titles. Janaway exposes some limitations and contradictions in Schopenhauer’s system, notably in his concepts of will, freedom, ethics, and pessimism.

Magee, Bryan. The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A scholarly introduction to Schopenhauer’s philosophical system. Explores the effects of his early life on his system and places his ideas in their philosophical tradition. Numerous appendices trace his influence on others.

Safranski, Rüdiger. Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. Essentially a biography, the book recounts the life and works of Schopenhauer. Safranski suggests that events in Schopenhauer’s life contributed to his outlook and the formation of his pessimistic system. In addition, he places the philosophy within the aesthetic and intellectual currents of Schopenhauer’s time.

Tanner, Michael. Schopenhauer. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Wallace, William. Life of Arthur Schopenhauer. London: Walter Scott, 1890. A comprehensive overview of Schopenhauer’s life, philosophical system, and influence. Biographical information draws heavily upon previous studies in Germany and offers an illuminating account of his daily life.

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