Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College


Arthur Schopenhauer's
The World as Will and Representation

Lecture IV

The World as Will

It's all Der Wille

If my entire experienced world is mere representation, the next question is: "What exactly is it a representation of?"

Schopenhauer's answer is this: The entire phenomenal world, as well as each of the individual items in it, is a representation of Will. But what could he possibly mean by this?

As long as we rely on experience only, the empiricist philosophers are exactly right: we are able to know only the "outer" of things, only the aspect of things that shows, only the phenomenal aspect which appears to our experience. As long as we rely only on experience, the only thing we can know is how things appear on the outside and never what their innermost essence is.

And with all items in the universe - except one - we are able to experience only their outer, external, phenomenal aspect, never their inner nature. There is only one item in the entire universe which I can know from the inside, and that is my own body. Only in the case of my own body is it possible for me to turn within and know its fundamental inner nature.

And when I do turn inward and try to feel or understand what it is at its central core, what we will encounter in there is pure life drive, what the philosopher Henri Bergson terms the elan vital, the life force. The pure energy, drive, urge that is at the center of all life. Schopenhauer says it thus

Whereas n the first book we were reluctantly forced to declare our own body to be mere representation of the knowing subject, like all the other objects of this world of perception, it has now become clear to us that something in the consciousness of everyone distinguishes the representation of his own body from all others that are in other respects quite like it. This is that the body occurs in consciousness in quite another way, toto genere [totally] different, that is denoted by the word will. It is just this double knowledge of our own body which gives us information about that body itself, about its action and movement following on motives, as well as about its suffering through outside impressions, in a word, about what it is, not as representation, but as something over and above this, and hence what it is in itself. We do not have such immediate information about the nature, action, and suffering of any other real objects. (p 103)

What Schopenhauer is observing here is that every external state of a person's body coincides with some internal will state of that body. Today we use the term "body language" to suggest that external actions and states of a body provide some indication of the internal feelings - what Schopenhauer might call will-states - of that body.

Now I could conclude that my own body is the only item in the universe that has such an inner dimension (will), but that seems unlikely. It is more likely that every living item in the universe, and for Schopenhauer every item in the universe, is, in its inner essence, pure will. (This is not so unlike the teachings of quantum physics that every item in the universe consists of pure energy.)

Schopenhauer requires that we not limit our understanding of the term "will" to only the notion of consciously willed choices that lead to human acts. We must instead have a much broader understanding of the concept of will.

But anyone who is incapable of carrying out the required extension of the concept will remain involved in a permanent misunderstanding. For by the word will, he will always understand only that species of it hitherto exclusively described by the term, that is to say, the will guided by knowledge, strictly according to motives, indeed only to abstract motives. This, as we have said, is only the most distinct phenomenon or appearance of the will. (p 111)

If a person is able to carry out the required extension of the concept of will,

He will recognize that same will not only in those phenomena that are quite similar to his own, in men and animals, as their innermost nature, but continued reflection will lead him to recognize the force that shoots and vegetates in the plant, indeed the force by which the crystal is formed, the force that turns the magnet to the North Pole, the force whose shock he encounters from the contact of metals of different kinds, the force that appears in the elective affinities of matter as repulsion and attraction, separation and union, and finally even gravitation [and now the strong force and the weak force which both operate at subatomic levels], which acts so powerfully in all matter, pulling the stone to the earth and the earth to the sun; all these he will recognize as different only in the phenomenon, but the same according to their inner nature. He will recognize them all as that which is immediately known to him so intimately and better than everything else, and where it appears most distinctly is called will. It is the innermost essence, the kernel, of every particular thing and also of the whole. It appears in every blindly acting force of nature, and also in the deliberate condu8ct of man, and the great difference between the two concerns only the degree of the manifestation, not the inner nature of what is manifested. (pp 109-110)

Thus, the inner nature of every thing, the thing-in-itself of each individual thing as well as of the whole, is will

Now that is a skeletal outline of the main elements of what Schopenhauer means when he says that the innermost nature of things is Der Wille. Most of his discussion of The Will can be found in the assigned readings in Book II.

Will develops mind

One other point needs to be made before leaving this section, and then we will turn briefly to a passage in Die Welt that summarizes Schopenhauer's philosophy.

The point is this: As will evolves into living things, it develops consciousness (or mind, or what Schopenhauer calls "knowledge") in order to help will achieve its wants. We see even in most plants, for example, some elemental awareness of where light is coming from. The plant's "will" needs light, and it has developed some minimal level of awareness of light so that its will can seek out that light and get what it wants. Animals have more advanced degrees of consciousness in order to help their more distinct development of will achieve its needs. And human beings have developed a relatively rich level of consciousness to help their wills meet their needs. When I want food, for example, consciousness might be put to use to search around out in the world to find where a good pizza might be found. So will has developed consciousness to help will meet its needs.

Now we turn to the summary of Schopenhauer's philosophy on p 152. Once you have some grasp of Schopenhauer's philosophy you will see that this one short paragraph is a very tight summation of Schopenhauer's entire philosophy. It reads thus:

Therefore, destined originally to serve the will for the achievement of its aims, knowledge [what I've called consciousness] remains almost throughout entirely subordinate to its service; this is the case with all animals and almost all men.

That is, almost all humans have only enough consciousness, or mind, to help them meet their will's needs. But some few humans seem to have been born with an excess of consciousness, more than is necessary merely for the purposes of serving that will's needs, and it is that extra level of consciousness that allows these people to "see" more than others can see. Schopenhauer continues:

However, we shall see in the third book how, in the case of individual persons, knowledge can withdraw from this subjection, throw off its yoke, and , free from all the aims of the will, exist purely for itself, simply as a clear mirror of the world; and this is the source of art. Finally, in the fourth book we shall see how, if this kind of knowledge reacts on the will, it can bring about the will's self-elimination, in other words, resignation. This is the ultimate goal, and indeed the innermost nature of all virtue and holiness, and is salvation from the world. (p 152)

To sum up:

Schopenhauer has now told us how things are. We might call this his metaphysic, his description of the fundamental nature of being. And it's not a very pretty picture. Life is full of suffering and we are living in a world of illusion. That's just how it is.

Is there hope?

We can now ask, Is there any hope? Are we entirely stuck in suffering and illusion, or is there any way to transcend these conditions of being in the world?

Schopenhauer answers that there is hope, but not very much. There isn't much hope because in order for there to be hope a person must see how things really are. If a person is about to be attacked by a grizzly or is about to be fired from their job or is about to flunk a course, or is about to be hit by a truck, if they are blithely unaware that this travesty is about to befall them then there isn't' much hope for them at all. In a similar way, if a person is not aware of the real state of affairs in the world, there is not much hope that their suffering can be overcome. But if they are aware of the bear or the risk to their job or aware of the oncoming truck, then there may be hope for them. Most people, says Schopenhauer, are just not aware of the real situation in the world (which he has been describing for us) and so for them there is no hope at all. For the person who is aware of the real situation in the world, though - that it is a world of suffering, will, and illusion - for that person there is hope.

And where does hope lie? Schopenhauer says hope lies in two directions (actually three, but we'll look at only two of them).

  1. The encounter with the beautiful, which we will call aesthetic contemplation. This is discussed in Book III.

  2. Asceticism, or self-denial, i.e., the practice of turning the will against itself as a way of extinguishing its power. This is discussed in Book IV.

It is these two ways of salvation from the world to which we turn next.