(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
‘The World as Will and Representation’
Book first published in 1818
Review first writtten on January 19, 2020)
(Based on my very limited understanding)
Schopenhauer assumes your having knowledge of Kant’s philosophical system (I had only read Immanuel Kant‘s Critique of Pure Reason) and his own doctoral thesis ‘On the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason‘ which I might read next time I want to give this philosopher a try.
It seems to me that philosophers are mostly at their best when
(1) When they are criticizing other philosophers
(2.) when they are criticizing the ways through which we can ‘know’ anything.
His argument that very rules of logic were created more out of the convention by Greeks rather than some beautiful epiphany spoke directly to me.
As much as Socrates’ dialogues can be amusing and give you food for thought, if you think his use of syllogism to win debates shows he was always right, then you put too much value on logic and reason. The world doesn’t have to stand by our rules of logic. Even syllogisms. Hydrogen is combustible, oxygen too – combine them and you get water which is used to fight the fire. syllogism and other such rules of logic are only useful in worlds entirely dependent on such systems like mathematics. And even in mathematics, they don’t seem to tell us a lot of new things except the interconnection between different patterns.
As much as I liked maths in school it bothered me to no end that we should have to ‘prove’ a geometrical theory like that angles of a triangle always adds to 180 degrees because it could be discerned by eyes and often you could use the theory to prove what you had earlier assumed as given. Schopenhauer has some best (and also ironically logically sound) arguments against such reasoning after Kant.
Will and Representation
While I don’t agree with the main theory itself which seemed to me like an exercise in creating an idea so minimal that you could use it to explain it everything; it is an interesting book.
You can understand the word ‘will’ in the same sense as it generally understood – desire, urge, etc. He says that the whole world has a single insatiable will – and it is basically what makes the world move. It is what makes birds create nests for offsprings they don’t know yet they will have etc. Now if you know anything about Hindu philosophy, this assumption is important to them too. In fact, the Hindu word for God ‘Paramatma’ (figuratively ‘prime soul’) seems to mean as same thing as Schopenhauer’s. Of course, you don’t see the will in itself, only its representation – which in Hinduism is called ‘Maya’. Yes, Schopenhauer was a big fan of Hinduism. Will is what operates behind the bird above and makes it act so (as far as I understand), representation is the bird you see. ‘WIll’ is me, ‘representation’ is my body.
The representation is held in our mind by the principle of sufficient reason which is basically arguing if something is there / occurs, it must have a cause or reason – another silly convention if you ask me.
What might be interesting to me is the idea of comparing Schopenhauer’s theory of will as it manifests itself in living things to theories of Evolution. What Schopenhauer seems to try to explain in the behavior of animals through his idea of that single all-encompassing ‘will’; is now probably explained by evolutionary incentives (such as how does an animal know that falling from a height might cause it an injury?). Schopenhauer’s treatment of Will as something we are not conscious can be linked to the unconscious in the fields of psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung too.
Will is also what called the thing-in-itself (as against its representation in our mind). The whole world is one thing-in-itself and this unity (the one soul or Paramatma) is only seen as a number of entities because of time and space which are two forms of intuition and deceive us into seeing many differ Wills. Outside of time and space, we won’t be able to differentiate among different things.
Add in here a lot of pessimism of religious philosophers. Since everything (including non-living things) have a will of itself, everything suffers too. And it must go on suffering till it wills which is why asceticism is awesome.
Not my favorite book.
My favorite part.
Kant talks about aesthetics. Art is an improved ‘representation’ of will’s ‘representation’ in nature – the play within the play. You take a part of the representation of Will – the platonic idea (for example lakes, love, etc) and you contemplate it individually so as to stop willing (lose consciousness of your own desires) for a moment which in turn reduces suffering causing what is called aesthetic pleasure.
We have different capacities for this aesthetic pleasure and having a high capacity of the same makes you ‘genius’. A genius then tries to communicate the aesthetic experience by creating copies of these ‘ideas’. These copies of ideas are called works of art.
The above theory holds true for all arts (Schopenhauer has interesting things to say about a lot of art forms) with the sole exception of music. Music is not a copy of an idea. It is the same level as the original representation of the ‘one’ Will itself and yet offering us pleasure. For example when you paint a leave – there is a (level 1) WIll behind leave which can’t be seen, (level 2) an original leave (the representation), (level 3) the idea of it in your mind and (level 4) the work of art or the copy of that idea in form of the painting. All arts are at level 4 but music is at level 2 and so closer to will. Despite being so close to the will, it offers just as much pleasure as the other art forms which do so by distancing us from the will.
If something pleases us by being ‘beautiful’ then it pleases us by tempting and feeding our desires (nudes, chocolates, and artworks depicting them). Like every preacher of asceticism, Schopenhauer too thinks that the world is full of suffering and things that satisfy our desires (beautiful things) only tempt stronger desires in us. A ‘sublime’ pleasure, on the other hand, is derived when we struggle with our natural hostility to the object and this pleasure is thus driven by our getting closer to Will.
If you see things at the level of Representation (Maya), you develop egoism and egos clash and hence immoral actions, etc. To someone who sees beyond the representation of WIll, the whole world is One – his or her own suffering is not any different from that of any other; hence compassionate acts come naturally. Schopenhauer talks of suicide in detail which he thinks is basically running away from the problem manifestation of Will or its individual phenomena rather than fighting it which can only be done through asceticism. This book was boring too.
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Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan