Arthur Schopenhauer: The World as Will and Idea

SCHOPENHAUER'S magnificent work, The World as Will and Idea (Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung), published in 1819, is not only a masterly exposition of philosophy, but a comprehensive record of Schopenhauer's own views on mankind. The keynote of his philosophy is that the sole essential reality in the universe is the will, and that all visible and tangible phenomena are merely subjective representations of that 'will which is the only thing-in-itself' that actually exists. The defect of his system is its tendency to a sombre pessimism. An enlarged edition appeared in 1844. The chief of Schopenhauer's other works are On the Will in Nature (1836), The Main Problems of Ethics (1841), and Parerga and Paralipomena (1851).


'THE world is my idea' is a truth valid for every living creature, though only man can consciously contemplate it. In doing so he attains philosophical wisdom. No truth is more absolutely certain than that all that exists for knowledge, and, therefore, this whole world, is only object in relation to subject, perception of a perceiver--in a word, idea. The world is idea.

This truth is by no means new. It lay by implication in the reflections of Descartes; but Berkeley first distinctly enunciated it, while Kant erred by ignoring it. So ancient is it that it was the fundamental principle of the Indian Vedanta, as Sir William Jones points out. In one aspect, the world is idea; in the other aspect the world is will.

That which knows all things and is known by none is the subject; and for this subject all exists. But the world as idea consists of two essential and inseparable halves. One half is the object, whose from consists of time and space, and, through these, of multiplicity; but the other half is the subject, lying not in space and time, for it subsists whole and undivided in every reflecting being.

Thus, any single individual endowed with the faculty of perception of the object constitutes the whole world of idea as completely as the millions in existence; but let this single individual vanish, and the whole world as idea would disappear. Each of these halves possesses meaning and existence only in and through the other, appearing with and vanishing with it. Where the object begins the subject ends.

One of Kant's great merits is that he discovered that the essential and universal forms of all objects--space, time, causality--lie a priori in our consciousness, for they may be discovered and fully known from a consideration of the subject, without any knowledge of the object.

Ideas of perception are distinct from abstract ideas. The former comprehend the whole world of experience; the latter are concepts, and are possessed by man alone amongst all creatures on earth; and the capacity for these, distinguishing him from the lower animals, is called reason.

Much vain controversy has arisen concerning the reality of the external universe, owing to the fallacious notion that, because perception arises through the knowledge of causality, the relation of subject and object is that of cause and effect. For this relation only subsists between objects--that is, between the immediate object--and objects known indirectly. The object always presupposes the subject, and so there can be between these two no relation of reason and consequent.

Therefore, the controversy between realistic dogmatism and doctrinal scepticism is foolish. The former seems to separate object and idea as cause and effect, whereas these two are really one--the latter supposes that in the idea we have only the effect, never the cause, and never know the real being, but merely its action. The correction of both these fallacies is the same--that object and idea are identical.

The greatest value of knowledge is that it can be communicated and retained. This makes it inestimably important for practice. Rational or abstract knowledge is that knowledge which is peculiar to the reason as distinguished from the understanding. The use of reason is that it substitutes abstract concepts for ideas of perception, and adopts them as the guide of action.

The many-sided view of life which man, as distinguished from the lower animals, possesses through reason makes him stand to them as the captain, equipped with chart, compass and quadrant, and with a knowledge of navigation, stands to the ignorant sailors under his command.

Man lives two lives. Besides his life in the concrete is his life in the abstract. In the former he struggles, suffers and dies as do the mere animal creatures. But in the abstract he quietly reflects on the plan of the universe as does a captain of a ship on the chart. He becomes in this abstract life of calm reasoning a deliberate observer of those elements which previously moved and agitated his emotions. Withdrawing into this serene contemplation, he is like an actor who has played a lively part on the stage and then withdraws and, as one of the audience, quietly looks on at other actors who are energetically performing.


WE are compelled to further inquiry, because we cannot be satisfied with knowing that we have ideas, and that these are associated with certain laws, the general expression of which is the principle of sufficient reason. We wish to know the significance of our ideas. We ask whether this world is nothing more than a mere idea, not worthy of our notice if it is to pass by us like an empty dream or an airy vision, or whether it is something more substantial.

We can surely never arrive at the nature of things from without. No matter how assiduous our researches may be, we can never reach anything beyond images and names. We resemble a man going round a castle seeking vainly for an entrance, and sometimes sketching the facades. And yet this is the method followed by all philosophers before me.

The truth about man is that he is not a pure knowing subject, not a winged cherub without a material body, contemplating the world from without. For he is himself rooted in that world. That is to say, he finds himself in the world as an individual whose knowledge, which is the essential basis of the whole world as idea, is yet ever communicated through the medium of the body, whose sensations are the starting-point of the understanding of that world. His body is for him an idea like every other idea, an object among objects. He only knows its actions as he knows the changes in all other objects, and but for one aid to his understanding of himself he would find this idea and object as strange and incomprehensible as all others.

That aid is will, which alone furnishes the key to the riddle of himself, solves the problem of his own existence and reveals to him the inner structure and significance of his being, his action and his movements.

The body is the immediate object of will; it may be called the objectivity of will. Every true act of will is also instantly a visible act of the body, and every impression on the body is also at once an impression on the will. When it is opposed to the will it is called pain, and when consonant with the will, pleasure.

THE essential identity of body and will is shown by the fact that every violent movement of the will--that is to say, every emotion--directly agitates the body and interferes with its vital functions. So we may legitimately say: My body is the objectivity of my will.

It is simply owing to this special relation to one body that the knowing subject is an individual. Our knowing, being bound to individuality, necessitates that each of us can only be one, and yet each of us can know all. Hence arises the need for philosophy. The double knowledge which each of us possesses of his own body is the key to the nature of every phenomenon in the world. Nothing is either known to us or thinkable by us except will and idea. If we examine the reality of the body and its actions, we discover nothing beyond the fact that it is an idea, except the will. With this double discovery reality is exhausted.

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