KANT’S IMPACT ON GERMAN THOUGHT
Following closely upon Kant’s critical philosophy was the movement of nineteenth-century German idealism. As a metaphysical theory idealism in general is the view that the universe is composed solely of mental—or spiritual—things; there is in reality no material stuff. For example, the eighteenth-century British empiricist George Berkeley held that only spiritual minds exist, and my perception of the so-called physical world is simply a stream of mental perceptions that God feeds into my spiritual mind. The German approach to idealism had Kantian philosophy as its starting point. Kant did not technically deny the existence of the physical world. However, he maintained that the true nature of things-in-themselves is permanently hidden from us. Our minds are structured in such a way that we are forever barred from going beyond the realm of sense experience, that is, the realm of phenomena. Further, our interpretation of the world of experience is permanently fixed by the categories that our minds impose on our experiences. Kant believed that these categories—such as cause and effect, existence and negation, and others—are concepts that our minds possess prior to experience and employ in relation to objects, and this is what makes knowledge possible.
Although we are locked into a view of the world that is limited to our sense experience and mental constructs, Kant still believed that there existed a noumenal realm of things-in-themselves, even though we can never access it. For example, we experience only the appearance of the red apple—sensory information arranged by our mental abilities of perception. But behind the redness of the apple, there must be something to which the color red is related or that can have the color red, namely, that apple in itself. For Kant, though, the fact remains that we cannot know anything about such things-in-themselves because our mental categories apply only to the phenomenal world.
Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) was one of the first German idealists to recognize a glaring contradiction in Kant’s argument. How is it possible to say that something exists but that we can know nothing about it? Do we not already know something about it when we say that it exists? Further, Kant asserted the existence of things-in-themselves in order to account for our experiences of sensation, saying in effect that the thing-in-itself is the cause of any given sensation. But he had clearly argued that the categories of the mind, such as cause and effect, could not be used to give us knowledge about the noumenal world. When Kant says, then, that the thing-in-itself is the cause of our sensations, he thereby contradicts his own rule for limiting the use of the categories to our judgments about the objects of sense experience.
Even to say that the thing-in-itself exists is to go beyond the limits that Kant set for knowledge. For existence is simply a category of the mind that helps organize our sense experience in a coherent manner. Indeed, Kant’s strongest argument against the earlier metaphysicians was that they wrongly ascribed existence to alleged beings and realities beyond sense experience. Now with his doctrine of the thing-in-itself, it seems that Kant has retained just what his critical philosophy was supposed to eliminate. Not only is it impossible, in Kant’s theory, to ascribe the category of existence to things-in-themselves, it is also a clear contradiction to say that something can exist if it is unknowable. We can, of course, distinguish between something that is at the moment unknown (but potentially knowable) and something that is permanently unknowable. But to say that something is permanently unknowable is contradictory, because such a statement implies that we already know that something is, and to that extent it is knowable. Thus, Kant’s conception of the thing-in-itself collapsed.
Fichte put forward the opposite thesis, namely, that whatever is, is knowable. At the same time, Fichte had no intention of reverting to the kind of metaphysics that Kant had rejected. He believed that Kant had achieved genuine progress in philosophy, and he intended to carry forward what Kant had begun. What Fichte tried to do, therefore, was to use Kant’s method—stripped of the concept of the unknowable thing-in-itself—and transform Kant’s critical idealism into a metaphysical idealism. That is, Fichte took Kant’s theory that the mind imposes its categories upon experience and transformed this into the theory that every object, and therefore the entire universe, is a product of mind.
Other German philosophers also joined in the enterprise of transforming Kant’s critical philosophy into a metaphysical idealism—most notably, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854), and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860). Each of these philosophers approached this enterprise in his own and somewhat different way. What they did agree on, however, was that there can be no unknowable thing-in-itself as Kant had presumed. Further, Kant believed that things-in-themselves are the ultimate source of our sense experience. The idealists argued instead that our experiential knowledge is the product of mind. In this chapter we will look at the views of two German idealists—Hegel and Schopenhauer.
Hegel’s historical significance lies in the fact that he accomplished with extraordinary and systematic thoroughness what Kant so recently said could not be done. Kant argued that metaphysics is impossible, that it is impossible for the human mind to achieve theoretical knowledge about all of reality. Hegel, on the other hand, set forth the general proposition that “what is rational is real and what is real is rational,” and from this concluded that everything that is, is knowable. Here was an elaborate metaphysics, which provided a new basis for thinking about the very structure of reality and about its manifestations in morality, law, religion, art, history, and, above all, thought itself. It might be argued that the eventual decline of Hegelian philosophy was more a matter of abandonment than of studied attack—more like deserting a mansion than capturing a stronghold. But to imply that Hegel’s successors merely decided to ignore his elaborate metaphysical system is to misjudge the impact and grip his ideas had on the generations that followed him. The impact of Hegel’s thought can be measured by the fact that most modern philosophy represents ways of revising or rejecting aspects of his absolute idealism.
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was born at Stuttgart in 1770 and lived through Germany’s most brilliant intellectual period. This was the year when Beethoven was born and when the poet-scientist Goethe, that “complete civilization in himself,” was 20 years old. Kant was 46 years old and had not yet written his classic philosophical works. The Englishman William Wordsworth was also born in this year, and his poetry in time formed a part of that romanticism that shared some of the attitudes of German idealism. At an early age Hegel was deeply impressed by ancient Greek writers, coming eventually to believe that Plato and Aristotle were not only the sources of philosophy but even now its life-giving roots. After being a rather ordinary pupil at school in Stuttgart, Hegel enrolled at age 18 in the theological school at the University of Tübingen. Here he became friends with Hölderin and Schelling and was caught up in lively discussions over the issues of the French Revolution. During his five years at Tübingen, his interest gradually turned to the relation between philosophy and theology. It was after he left the university that his interest in philosophy finally flowered. He became a family tutor for six years, in Berne and in Frankfurt, and during these years he wrote some minor works that nevertheless contained germs of the major problems he eventually made central in his philosophical works.
By this time German idealism had found two influential spokesmen in Fichte and Schelling. In 1801, when Hegel was appointed to the faculty of the University of Jena, he published his first work, on the Difference between the Philosophical Systems of Fichte and Schelling, in which he expressed a dislike for Fichte. While he was more sympathetic with Schelling in these early days, it was not long before his independent and original approach to philosophy was made public in his first major work, The Phenomenology of Mind, which, he says, he finished at midnight before the Battle of Jena in 1807. As this battle closed his university, Hegel supported himself and his wife, whom he married in 1811, by becoming rector of the secondary school at Nürnberg, where he remained until 1816. It was here that he wrote his influential Science of Logic, which brought him invitations from several universities. In 1816 he joined the faculty at Heidelberg, where in the following year he published his Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Outline, the work in which he presents the grand structure of his philosophy in its threefold aspect, namely, logic, philosophy of nature, and philosophy of mind. Two years later he was given the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin, where he remained until his death from cholera in 1831, at the age of 61. At Berlin Hegel’s writing was massive, although most of it was published after his death. His works during this period included his Philosophy of Right and his posthumously published lectures on Philosophy of History, Aesthetics, Philosophy of Religion, and History of Philosophy.
As noted, the thrust of German idealism is that mind is ultimately the source and content of knowledge—not physical objects or some mysterious thing-in-itself. As Hegel expressed it, every reality is rational, and the rational is real. But what kind of “mind” actually produces our knowledge? We do experience a world of things external to us, which we recognize as existing independently of us and which we did not create. If all objects of our knowledge are the products of mind, but not our minds, it must be assumed that they are the products of an intelligence other than that of a finite individual. Hegel and other idealists concluded that all objects of knowledge, and therefore all objects, and indeed the whole universe, are the products of an absolute subject, an Absolute Mind. For Kant the categories of the mind merely make knowledge possible. However, for Hegel the categories have a type of existence that is independent of any individual’s mind. Again, for Kant, the categories represented the mental process of an individual and provided for him the explanation of the types and limits of human knowledge. The categories, he said, are concepts in the human mind—concepts that the mind brings to experience and by which the mind can understand the world of experience. Hegel, on the other hand, considered the categories not only as mental processes but as objective realities possessing existence independently of the thinking individual. More specifically, Hegel argued that the existence of the categories is grounded in the Absolute Mind. But, as we shall see, Hegel did not mean to say that there were categories, on the one hand, and things such as chairs and apples, on the other. Such a distinction would suggest that ideas and things have separate existences—just as Plato distinguished Forms from things. Hegel, unlike Plato, did not ascribe any independent existence to the categories. Instead, he said that they have existence and have their being independently of a person’s mind or thought. Hegel wanted to say that the real world is more than the subjective conceptions of people’s minds. At the same time, he was saying that reality is rationality, or Thought.
Take, for example, a chair. What is a chair, or what does it consist of? Hegel said that if we take seriously the conclusion that there can be no unknowable thing-in-itself, a chair must consist of the sum of the ideas we can have about it. On this basis a chair must consist of all the universals we find in it when we experience it. We say that the chair is hard, brown, round, and small. These are all universal ideas, and when they are related to each other in this way, they are a chair. These universals have their being in the chair; universals or categories never exist singly or independently. Since there is no unknowable aspect of the chair—that is, nothing in addition to the qualities we experience—it follows that the chair is what we know about it, and what we know about it is that it consists of a combination of universals or ideas. To say, then, that the categories and universals have objective status means that they have their being independent of the knowing subject. At the same time, as the example of the chair shows, Hegel says that the object of thought consists after all in thought itself. There is, he said, an identity between knowing and being. Knowing and being are simply two sides of the same coin. To be sure, Hegel recognized that there is a subject and an object, a person and the world. But the essence of his idealism consisted in his notion that the object of our consciousness—the thing we experience and think about—is itself thought. In the end Hegel arrived at the notion that reality is to be found in the Absolute Idea.
So far, two major points in Hegel’s argument have been set forth; (1) We must reject the notion of an unknowable thing-in-itself, and (2) the nature of reality is thought, rationality, and ultimate reality is the Absolute Idea. To indicate some of the steps by which Hegel came to this conclusion that reality is Thought, we turn next to a few of the basic elements in his intricate system of philosophy.
The Nature of Reality
Hegel looked upon the world as an organic process. We have already seen that for him the truly real is what he called the Absolute. In theological terms this Absolute is called God. But Hegel wanted to show that he was not here referring to a Being separate from the world of nature or even from individual people. Whereas Plato made a sharp distinction between appearance and reality, Hegel argued in effect that appearance is reality. Nothing, said Hegel, is unrelated. For this reason, whatever we experience as separate things will, on careful reflection, lead us to other things to which they are related. Eventually, the process of dialectic thought will end in the knowledge of the Absolute. Still, the Absolute is not the unity of separate things. Hegel rejected materialism, which held that there are separate, finite particles of hard matter that, when arranged in different formations, make up the whole nature of things. Nor did Hegel accept the extreme alternative put forward in the ancient world by Parmenides and more recently by Spinoza, namely, that everything is One—a single substance with various types and attributes. Hegel described the Absolute as a dynamic process, as an organism having parts but nevertheless unified into a complex system. The Absolute is, therefore, not some entity separate from the world; rather, it is the world when viewed in a special way.
Hegel believed that the inner essence of the Absolute could be reached by human reason because the Absolute is revealed in Nature as well as in the working of the human mind. What connects these three—the Absolute, Nature, and the mind—is Thought itself. A person’s way of thinking is, as it were, fixed by the structure of Nature, by the way things actually behave. Things behave as they do, however, because the Absolute is expressing itself through the structure of Nature. Thus, a person thinks about Nature the way the Absolute expresses itself in Nature. Just as the Absolute and also Nature are dynamic processes, so also human thought is a process—a dialectic process.
Logic and the Dialectic Process
Hegel laid great stress on logic. To be sure, he understood logic to mean virtually the same thing as metaphysics. This was particularly so because he believed that knowing and being coincide. Still, it was Hegel’s view that we can know the essence of reality by moving logically, step by step, and avoiding all self-contradiction along the way. Descartes had advocated a similar method, whereby certainty in knowledge would follow from the movement from one clear idea to the next. Unlike Descartes, however, whose emphasis was on the relations of ideas to each other, Hegel argued that thought must follow the inner logic of reality itself. That is, since Hegel had identified the rational with the actual, he concluded that logic and logical connections must be discovered inthe actual and not in some “empty ratiocination.” He argued that “since philosophy is the exploration of the rational, it is for that very reason the apprehension of the present and the actual, not the erection of a beyond, supposed to exist, God knows where.” Logic, then, is the process by which we deduce, from our experiences of the actual, the categories that describe the Absolute. This process of deduction is at the very heart of Hegel’s dialectic philosophy.
Hegel’s dialectic process exhibits a triadic movement. Usually, this triadic structure of the dialectic process is described as a movement from thesis to antithesis and finally to synthesis, after which the synthesis becomes a new thesis, and this process continues until it ends in the Absolute Idea. What Hegel emphasized in his dialectic logic was that thought moves. Contradiction does not bring knowledge to a halt but acts as a positive moving force in human reasoning.
To illustrate Hegel’s dialectic method, we can take the first basic triad of his logic, namely, the triad of Being, Nothing, and Becoming. Hegel said that the mind must always move from the more general and abstract to the specific and concrete. The most general concept we can form about things is that they are. Although various things have specific and different qualities, they all have one thing in common, namely, their being. Being, then, is the most general concept that the mind can formulate. Also, Being must be logically prior to any specific thing, for things represent determinations or the shaping of what is originally without features. Thus, logic (and reality) begins with the indeterminate, with “the original featurelessness which precedes all definite character and is the very first of all. And this we call Being.” Hegel’s system begins, therefore, with the concept of Being, and this is the thesis. The question now is, how can thought move from such an abstract concept to any other concept? More important still is the question, how is it possible to deduce any other concept from such a universal idea as Being?
It was here that Hegel believed he had discovered something new about the nature of thought. Ever since the time of Aristotle, logicians thought that nothing could be deduced from a category that was not contained in that category. To deduce B from A requires that in some way B already be contained in A. Hegel accepted this. But what he rejected in Aristotelian logic was the assumption that nothing could be deduced from a universal term. For example, Aristotle argued that everything is a distinct thing and that logic, therefore, provides us only with specific universal terms from which no other universal terms could be deduced. Thus, for example, there is either blue or not-blue; there is no way to deduce any other color from blue. If blue is blue, you cannot at the same time say that it is something else, a not-blue. This principle of noncontradiction is very important in any formal logic. Still, Hegel believed that it is not true that a universal does not contain another concept. Returning, then, to the concept of Being, Hegel said that we have here an idea that contains none of the particular qualities or characteristics of the many things that have being. The idea of Being has no content, for the moment you give it some content, it would no longer be the concept of pure Being but the concept of something. Unlike Aristotle, however, Hegel believed that from this concept of Being it is possible to deduce another concept. He argued that because pure Being is mere abstraction, it is, therefore, absolutely negative. That is, since the concept of Being is wholly undefined, it passes into the concept of not-Being. Whenever we try to think of Being without any particular characteristics, the mind moves from Being to not-Being. This, of course, means that in some sense Being and not-Being are the same. Hegel is aware, as he says, that “the proposition that Being and Nothing are the same is so paradoxical to the imagination or understanding, that it is perhaps taken for a joke.” Indeed, to understand Being and Nothing as the same, says Hegel, “is one of the hardest things thought expects itself to do.” Still, Hegel’s point is that Nothing is deduced from Being. At the same time, the concept of Nothing easily leads the mind back to the concept of Being. Of course, Hegel is not implying that we can say of particular things that they simultaneously are the same as nothing. His argument is limited to the concept of pure Being, which, he says, contains the idea of Nothing. He has, then, deduced the concept of Nothing from the concept of Being. The antithesis, Nothing, is contained in the thesis, Being. In Hegel’s logic the antithesis is always deduced from the thesis, because it is already contained in the thesis.
The movement of the mind from Being to Nothing produces a third category, namely, Becoming. The concept of Becoming is formed by the mind when it understands that Being, for the reasons already mentioned, is the same as Nothing. Becoming, Hegel says, is “the unity of Being and Nothing”; it is “one idea.” Becoming is, therefore, the synthesis of Being and Nothing. If we ask how something can both be and not be, Hegel would answer that it can both be and not be when it becomes.
Throughout his vast and intricate system, Hegel employs this same dialectic method of logic. At each step he sets forth a thesis from which is deduced its antithesis; this thesis and antithesis then find their unity in a higher synthesis. In the end Hegel arrives at the concept of the Absolute Idea, which he describes, in accordance with his dialectic method, as Becoming—as a process of self-development. Beginning, then, at the lowest level of knowledge, with sensation of qualities and characteristics of particular things, Hegel sought to expand the scope of knowledge by discovering the ever-widening interrelationships of all things. In this way our minds move rigorously by way of deduction from one concept to the other, which we find as categories in actuality. Single facts, for Hegel, are irrational. Only when such single facts are seen as aspects of the whole do they become rational. Thinking is forced to move from one fact to another by the very nature of each concept that facts engender. For example, consider the parts of an engine. By itself a spark plug has no rational character; what confers rationality upon it is its relation to the other parts of the engine. To discover the essence of the spark plug is, thus, to discover the truth about the other parts and, eventually, the entire engine. The human mind, then, moves dialectically, constantly embracing an ever-increasing scope of reality, discovering the truth of anything only after discovering its relation to the whole—that is, its relation to the Idea.
The Idea of which Hegel speaks is deduced in his logic by the same method that yielded Becoming out of Being. The category of subjectivity is deduced from the fact that a person can have a notion of a thing, make a judgment about it, and be able to reason out logical connections. But from subjectivity we can deduce its opposite, namely, objectivity. That is, the notion of subjectivity already contains the idea of objectivity. To say that I am a self (subjectivity) implies that there is a not-self (objectivity). Subjectivity consists of thought in its formal sense. Objectivity, on the other hand, is thought that is, as it were, outside itself and in things. Describing the objective character of a person’s notion, Hegel says that it consists of mechanism, chemism, and teleology. What a subject knows about nature as mechanical laws, for example, objects express in their behavior. The synthesis of the subjective and the objective, Hegel says, is their unity in the Idea. That is, in the Idea the subjective (formal) and the objective (material) are brought together in unity. The Idea, however, contains its own dialectic, namely, life, cognition, and the Absolute Idea. Thus, the Idea is the category of self-consciousness; it knows itself in its objects. The whole drift of Hegel’s logic, therefore, has been to move from the initial concept of Being finally to the notion of the Idea. But this Idea must also be understood as being in a dynamic process, so that the Idea is itself in a continuous process of self-development toward self-perfection.
The Philosophy of Nature
From the Idea we derive the realm of Nature. As Hegel puts it, Nature represents the Idea “outside itself.” This expression is somewhat misleading, because it implies that the Idea exists independently of the world. In addition, Hegel ascribes “absolute freedom” to the Idea as it “goes forth freely out of itself as Nature.” Recalling, however, Hegel’s premise that the real is rational, it must follow here that Nature is simply rationality, or the Idea, in external form, somewhat the way a watchmaker’s idea is found outside of the self, in the watch. But Hegel’s view is subtler than the relation of the watchmaker to the watch would suggest. For Hegel does not really refer to two separately existing things, Idea and Nature. Ultimate reality is a single organic and dynamic whole. Hegel’s distinction between the logical Idea “behind” all things, on the one hand, and Nature, on the other, is his attempt simply to distinguish between the “inner” and “outer” aspects of the self-same reality. Nature, in short, is the opposite (the antithesis) of the rational Idea (thesis). Our thought moves dialectically from the rational (Idea) to the nonrational (Nature). The concept of Nature leads our thought finally to a synthesis represented by the unity of Idea and Nature in the new concept of Spirit (Geist, translated as either “Spirit” or “Mind”). What drives our thought from Nature back to Spirit is the dialectic movement within the concept of Nature. Just as logic begins with the most abstract concept—namely, Being—so the philosophy of Nature begins with the most abstract thing, which is, Hegel says, space. Space is empty (just as Being is indeterminate). At one “end,” then, Nature touches emptiness. At the other end, it passes over into Spirit. Between space and Spirit is the diversity of particular things, which is what Nature is. Nature exhibits the laws of mechanics, physics, and organics. Each of these aspects of Nature is in turn analyzed by Hegel into its dialectic terms.
Much of what Hegel says about Nature is superceded by the developments of science since his day. But it was not his intention to take over the work of the scientists. He was concerned, rather, to discover through the philosophy of Nature a rational structure and pattern in all of reality. At the same time, he tried to show the difference between freedom and necessity, saying that Nature is the realm of necessity whereas Spirit is freedom. Nature, Hegel says, “is to be considered as a system of stages, of which one proceeds necessarily from the other.” Freedom, on the other hand, is the act of Spirit. There is, then, a dialectic opposition between Spirit and Nature, between freedom and necessity. Indeed, the “career” of reality, the teleological movement of history, represents the gradual and continuous unfolding of the Spirit, of the Idea of freedom.
The Philosophy of Spirit
The third part of Hegel’s system, following his logical Idea and his philosophy of Nature, is the philosophy of Spirit or Mind. Here again, Hegel sets forth the elements of his dialectic in which the thesis is subjective spirit, the antithesis is objective spirit, and the synthesis is Absolute Spirit. He goes into considerable detail, piling triad upon triad to illustrate that the Absolute is Spirit and that this Spirit finds its manifestation in the minds of individuals; in the social institutions of family, civil society, and the state; and, finally, in art, religion, and philosophy. The subjective spirit refers to the inner workings of the human mind, whereas the objective spirit represents the mind in its external embodiment in the social and political institutions. At the apex of knowledge are art, religion, and philosophy, which are the achievement of Absolute Spirit.
Most of what made Hegel’s philosophy famous was that portion of his thought that he developed around his concept of objective spirit. Here we come upon the unity of Hegel’s thought as he attempts to connect his moral, social, and political thought with the rest of his system. The whole sphere of human behavior, both individual and collective, is described by him as part of the actual and, therefore, is essentially rational. Moreover, as part of the actual this objective side of the Spirit is seen as involved in the dialectic process. Human behavior and social and political organisms contain or embody the Spirit, just as Nature is the objective embodiment of the Absolute Idea. For this reason Hegel viewed institutions not as human creations but as the product of the dialectic movement of history, of the objective manifestation of rational reality. Speaking, for example, about his book on the Philosophy of Right, Hegel says that “containing as it does the science of the state, [it] is to be nothing other than the endeavor to apprehend and portray the state as something inherently rational. As a work of philosophy, it must be poles apart from an attempt to construct a state as it ought to be.” This identification of the actual state with the very grounds of reality is what caused Hegel’s political theory to have such a captivating influence among those who wished to think about the state in totalitarian or at least nondemocratic terms. We turn, then, to some of the “moments” in the dialectic process by which Hegel seeks to show the natural movement from the individual’s concept of right to the state’s authority over society. The basic triadic movement here is from right (thesis), to morality(antithesis), and then to social ethics(synthesis).
Ethics and Politics
The Concept of Right
We must first of all understand human behavior as the actions of individual people. Individuals, Hegel says, are aware of freedom. We express our freedom most concretely by an act of will. Hegel looked upon will and reason as virtually synonymous, saying that “only as thinking intelligence, will is free will.” We express freedom chiefly in relation to material things, appropriating them, using them, and exchanging them. “To appropriate,” says Hegel, “is at bottom only to manifest the majesty of my will towards things, by demonstrating that they are not self-complete and have no purpose of their own.” The basis of the right to property is for Hegel the free will of the individual in the act of appropriation. Free people, however, are able to “alienate” themselves from property, and this we do through “contract.” A contract is the product of two free wills agreeing to exchange property. It also shows the development of a duty, which the terms of the contract now embody. Hegel’s central point here is that, insofar as individual people act rationally, our free acts conform to the rationality of the universe. Our individual wills harmonize with the universal will. But among free people the harmony of wills is precarious. Thus, there is always the possibility of the opposite of right; the negation of right is exemplified in violence and fraud. “Wrong” consists in the breakdown of harmony between the individual will and the universal will. The dialectic relation between “right” and “wrong” produces the tension between the way the “wrong” will acts and the way the will should act in order to be universal, that is, rational. This tension or conflict between right and wrong is what gives rise to morality.
Morality, says Hegel, is fundamentally a matter of purpose and intention in the ethical life of humanity. There is more to “goodness,” in other words, than merely obeying laws and keeping contracts. Morality has to do with those deeds for which people can themselves be held responsible. Only those consequences that a person intends and that constitute the purpose of his or her act can affect the goodness or badness of this act. It appears, then, that for Hegel the essence of morality is found internally in a person’s intention and purpose. Moral responsibility, then, begins with those acts that can be assigned to a free will—a will that intends the act. But, Hegel argues, this subjective aspect of the act does not exhaust the full scope of morality. After all, human behavior always takes place in a context, especially in the context of other persons, and hence other wills. Moral duty or responsibility is, therefore, broader than the concerns or intentions of the individual. Moral duty derives from the requirement of identifying a person’s individual will with the universal will. Although it is perfectly legitimate for people to be concerned with their own happiness and welfare, the principle of rationality requires that we exercise our own will in such a way that the wills of other people, also acting freely, can achieve their welfare as well. Morality is, therefore, an element in the dialectic process: The thesis is the abstract right of each individual, and the antithesis is morality, for morality represents the duties that the universal will raises as limitations to the individual will. The relation between these two wills is the relation between freedom and duty, subjectivity and objectivity. The dialectic process in this ethical sphere is constantly moving toward a greater harmony between the subjective and the objective, and in this regard Hegel described the good as “the realization of freedom, the absolute final purpose of the world.” But the realization of freedom, for Hegel, had to occur within the limits of duty. In this sense the freest person is the one who most completely fulfills his or her duty. It was inevitable, then, that Hegel should discover the synthesis of the individual’s freedom and right, on the one hand, and the universal will, on the other, in our concrete human institutions, particularly in the state.
Between the individual and the state there are two dialectic steps, according to Hegel, namely, the family and society. The family is, as it were, the first stage of the objective will. In marriage two people give up their individual wills to some degree in order to become one person. Because the family is a single unit, its property becomes a common possession, even though, for legal reasons, the husband might be said to own it. Again, the family, united by a bond of feeling, or love, constitutes the logically first moment of the embodiment of the universal will. At the same time, the family contains its own antithesis, namely, individuals who will eventually grow up, leave the family, and enter into that larger context of similar individuals that is called civil society. These individuals now chart out their own lives and have their own purposes. We need to remember at this point that Hegel is here analyzing the dialectic development of the state and is not giving a historical account of its emergence. The state is the synthesis of the family and of civil society. The family, in this analysis, stands for the embodied universal, whereas civil society represents particularity insofar as each individual, unlike the members of a family, sets his or her own goals. These two elements, universality and particularity, cannot exist independently, for they are contained in each other; their unity, therefore, is found in the state, which is the synthesis of universality and particularity. The state is a unity in difference. This does not seem to be a genuine deduction, but Hegel does conclude that the synthesis of the universal and particular consists in the individual. In this context the state is conceived as an individual, the true individual, an organic unity of partial individuals.
Hegel did not conceive of the state as an authority imposed from the outside on the individual. Nor did he consider the state to be the product of the general or majority will. The state, says Hegel, “is absolutely rational—substantial will,” and again, “the state is the actuality of the ethical idea.” Hegel conferred upon the state the characteristic of a person, saying that the state represents universal self-consciousness. A particular individual, he notes, is conscious of himself insofar as he is a part of this larger self. And, Hegel says, “since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life.” A person’s spiritual reality is also found in the state, for as Hegel says, a human being’s “spiritual reality consists in this, that his own essence—Reason—is objectively present to him, that it has objective immediate existence for him.” Recalling that Hegel was not interested in formulating a theory of the idealstate, his descriptions of the actualstate are all the more striking. It was the actual living state about which he said that “the state is the embodiment of rational freedom” and, most striking of all, that “the State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.”
All these highly exalting descriptions of the state would make it appear that Hegel had advocated the totalitarian state. He did insist, however, that the state preserves individual liberty, by which we are members of civil society. Neither the family nor civil society is destroyed by the state; they continue to exist within the state. The laws of the state and, in general, the legislative and executive arms of the state do not issue arbitrary commands. Laws are universal rules, which have their application in individual cases involving individual people. Moreover, laws must be rational and directed at rational people. The reason for laws is that men, in their ability to make free choices, are capable of choosing ends that harm others. Insofar as their acts harm others, their behavior is irrational. The function of law is therefore to bring rationality into behavior. What makes an act rational is that it at once achieves a person’s private good and the public good. Only a person who acts rationally can be free, because only rational acts can be permitted in society, because only rational acts avoid social harm. Thus, the function of the state is not to compound personal harm or misery by issuing arbitrary and, therefore, irrational commands but rather to increase, through its laws, the aggregate of rational behavior. The state is thus an organism that is seeking to develop the Idea of freedom to its maximum and to achieve objective freedom only as its individual members do. In this way the laws of the state, rather than being arbitrary, are rational rules of behavior that individuals themselves would choose if they were acting rationally. The only limitation on the individual will that reason allows is the limitation required by the existence of other wills. The sovereign acts in the name of the universal will and reason and not arbitrarily. The state, then, “is the Idea of Spirit in the external manifestation of human Will and its Freedom.”
When it comes to the relations between states, Hegel emphasizes the autonomy and absolute sovereignty of each state. The relation of one state to another is different for Hegel from the relation of one person to another in civil society. When two people disagree, the state is the higher power that resolves the dispute. But if two states disagree, there is no higher power to resolve the conflict. Each nation, Hegel says, “is mind in its substantive rationality and immediate actuality and is therefore the absolute power on earth.” For this reason “every state is sovereign and autonomous against its neighbors. It is a fundamental proposition of international law that obligations between states ought to be kept.” But, Hegel says, “states are . . . in a state of nature in relation to each other,” and for this reason there is no universal will binding upon them. The “rights of states are actualized only in their particular wills,” insofar as there are no constitutional powers over them. There is no one to judge between states. It is not clear why Hegel did not carry his dialectic movement to the next level, at which individual states would be united into a community of nations. He was, of course, aware that Kant had an idea of securing “perpetual peace” by a League of Nations that would adjust every dispute. But he says that such an arrangement could not work because it would still be necessary for each state to will to obey the international tribunal. But a state will always will its own welfare. Indeed, Hegel says, “welfare is the highest law governing the relation of one state to another.” There can be no moral limitations on the state, for the state is “the ethical substance.” It follows, Hegel says, that “if states disagree and their particular wills cannot be harmonized, the matter can only be settled by war.”
In Hegel’s view the history of the world is the history of nations. The dynamic unfolding of history represents the “progress in the consciousness of freedom.” This progress is not a matter of mere chance but is rather a rational process. “Reason,” says Hegel, “dominates the world and . . . world history is thus a rational process.” In a special way the state is the bearer of reason, and because of this that the state is “the Idea of Spirit” in external form and is “the Divine Idea as it exists on earth.” But the dialectic of the historical process consists in the opposition between states. Each state expresses a national spirit and, indeed, the world spirit in its own collective consciousness. To be sure, only individual minds are capable of consciousness. Still, the minds of a particular people develop a spirit of unity, and for this reason it is possible to speak of a “national spirit.” Each national spirit represents a moment in the development of the world spirit, and the interplay between national spirits represents the dialectic in history.
The conflict between nations is inevitable inasmuch as the historical process is the very stuff of reality and is the gradual working out of the Idea of Freedom. Nations are carried along by the wave of history, so that in each epoch a particular nation is “the dominant people in world history for this epoch.” A nation cannot choose when it will be great, for “it is only once that it can make its hour strike.” At decisive points in history, Hegel says, special world-historical people emerge as agents of the world spirit. These persons lift nations to a new level of development and perfection. Hegel thought that such individuals could hardly be judged in terms of a morality that belonged to the epoch out of which a nation is being led. Instead, the value of such people consists in their creative responsiveness to the unfolding Idea of Freedom.
For Hegel the time process of history was the logical process of the dialectic. History is moving toward a purposive end, namely, freedom. To illustrate the dialectic of history, Hegel used examples of various nations, which, he thought, showed the three moments in the development of freedom. Asians, he thought, knew nothing of freedom except that the potentate alone could do what he wished. Although the ancient Greeks and Romans knew the concept of citizenship, they limited this status to only a few and regarded others as being by nature slaves. It was the Germanic nations that, under the influence of Christianity, developed the insight that people are free. Thus, Hegel says, “The East knew and to the present day knows, only that One is free; the Greek and Roman world, that some are free; the German world knows that All are free.” The highest freedom, we have seen, occurs, according to Hegel, when the individual acts according to the universal, rational will of the whole society.
Hegel’s philosophy has its culmination in our knowledge of the Absolute. In the process of dialectic, knowledge of the Absolute is the synthesis of subjective spirit and objective spirit. Because reality is rationality (Thought, Idea), it followed for Hegel that our knowledge of the Absolute is actually the Absolute knowing itself through the finite spirit of human beings. Just how this moment of self-consciousness of the Absolute occurs in the spirit of people is described by Hegel in a final dialectic.
Our consciousness of the Absolute, Hegel says, is achieved progressively as we move through the three stages from art, to religion, and finally to philosophy. Art provides “a sensuous semblance of the Idea” by providing us with an object of sense. In the object of art, the mind apprehends the Absolute as beauty. The object of art, moreover, is the creation of Spirit and, as such, contains some aspect of the Idea. There is an ever-deepening insight into the Absolute as we move from Asian symbolic art, to classical Greek art, and finally to romantic Christian art.
Art leads beyond itself to religion. What differentiates religion from art is that religion is an activity of thought, whereas an aesthetic experience is primarily a matter of feeling. Although art can direct consciousness toward the Absolute, religion comes closer to it precisely because the Absolute is Thought. At the same time, religious thought, Hegel says, is pictorial thought. In early religions this pictorial element looms large. “The Greek God,” for example, “is the object of naive intuition and sensuous imagination. His shape is therefore the bodily shape of man.” At the apex of religion is Christianity, which is the religion of the Spirit.
Hegel regarded Christianity as the pictorial representation of philosophy. He believed that religion and philosophy have basically the same subject matter, that both represent “knowledge of that which is eternal, of what God is, and what flows out of his nature,” so that “religion and philosophy come to the same things.” Philosophy leaves behind the pictorial forms of religion and rises to the level of pure thought. But philosophy does not offer the knowledge of the Absolute at any particular moment, for such knowledge is the product of the dialectic process. Philosophy itself has a history, a dialectic movement, in which the major periods and systems of philosophy are not mere haphazard developments. These systems in the history of philosophy represent the necessary succession of ideas required by the progressive unfolding of the Idea. The history of philosophy is for Hegel, therefore, the development of the Absolute’s self-consciousness in the mind of people.
A contemporary of Hegel, Schopenhauer refused to acknowledge that Hegel was an appropriate or adequate successor to Kant. So great was Schopenhauer’s disrespect for Hegel that he said, “There is no philosophy in the period between Kant and myself; only mere University charlatanism.” This criticism aimed at Hegel was in the same vein as Schopenhauer’s comment that “out of every page of Hume’s there is more to be learned than out of [all] of the philosophical works of Hegel.” But Hegel was not the only target of Schopenhauer’s withering criticism. He expressed his broader disdain in the judgment that “I should like to see the man who could boast of a more miserable set of contemporaries than mine.” What appears as egotism to others was to Schopenhauer simply the recognition by him of his unique gifts, just as, he said, a person knows whether he is taller or shorter than the average person. He had no hesitation, therefore, in saying, “I have lifted the veil of truth higher than any mortal before me.”
Arthur Schopenhauer was born in Danzig in 1788. Although his family was of Dutch origin, it had for a long time been settled in this German city with its ancient traditions and its Hanseatic commercial connections. His ancestors enjoyed considerable prominence and wealth. When Russia’s Peter the Great and Empress Catherine visited Danzig, Schopenhauer’s great-grandfather’s house was selected as the place where these distinguished visitors would stay. His father was a wealthy merchant and wanted Schopenhauer to follow in his footsteps. As a child Schopenhauer accompanied his parents on their many travels, which introduced him to a variety of cultures and customs and developed in him a distinctly cosmopolitan point of view. Although he gained much from these travels in France, Italy, England, Belgium, and Germany, his systematic early education was disrupted. But his capacity to learn was so great that he was able to make up for his lack of ordinary schooling very quickly.
His early schooling began in France at age 9; after two years he returned to Germany, where his education focused on the requirements for a career as a merchant, with little or no emphasis on the classics. But soon Schopenhauer showed a strong inclination toward philosophy, a development not at all pleasing to his father, who worried that such a career could lead only to poverty. After more travel and study in England and Switzerland, Schopenhauer returned to Danzig and entered a merchant’s office as a clerk. Shortly thereafter, his father died, and at age 17 he was on his own, without even a close or helpful bond between his mother and himself. He and his mother had opposite temperaments, she being full of optimism and the love of pleasure while he, from an early age, was inclined toward pessimism. This difference between the two made it impossible for them to live in the same house. Later, when his mother moved to Weimar, she wrote to him about the battle of Jena and the occupation of Weimar, saying, “I could tell you things that would make your hair stand on end, but I refrain, for I know how you love to brood over human misery in any case.”
By the age of 21, Schopenhauer had more than adequately repaired his sketchy earlier education. He became engaged in a deep study of the classics, while his considerable aptitude for languages led him comfortably through Greek, Latin, and history; and mathematics was not neglected along the way. He was now ready to set out on a career, and in 1809 he enrolled in the medical school at Göttingen University. But the following year he transferred from medicine to the faculty of philosophy, captivated by Plato “the divine” and “the marvelous Kant.” In due course he completed his studies, and for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Jena, he wrote a book titled On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which was published in 1813. The poet Goethe had praise for this book; nevertheless, it attracted virtually no attention from readers and remained unsold.
At Goethe’s suggestion Schopenhauer was encouraged to study the problem of light, which at this time was approached from different points of view by Goethe and Newton. From this study Schopenhauer produced a brief work titled On Vision and Colours, which tended to support Goethe’s view.
Schopenhauer’s masterpiece is his The World as Will and Idea, which he wrote during 1814 and 1818 while living quietly in Dresden and which he published in 1819. Once again, this book aroused little notice and generated few sales. It contains Schopenhauer’s complete philosophical system. He was convinced that in this work he had made his most distinctive contribution and was further convinced that he had discovered the solution to many long-standing philosophical problems. As he wrote, “Subject to the limitation of human knowledge, my philosophy is the real solution of the enigma of the world.” As if to prepare for shallow criticism or even a brutal disregard of his major book, he wrote, “Whoever has accomplished an immortal work will be as little hurt by its reception from the public or the opinions of critics, as a sane man in a madhouse is affected by the upbraidings of the insane.”
From Dresden Schopenhauer went to Berlin and began to lecture at the University of Berlin with the hope of winning acceptance, or at least recognition, of his systematic philosophy. His attempt failed, partly because of the continued indifference toward his view among academics, but also because he overconfidently set the time of his lectures at exactly the hour when the giant Hegel gave his lectures. In 1831 Schopenhauer left Berlin, urged on by a cholera epidemic that included Hegel among its victims. He settled in Frankfurt-am-Main and wrote other works that further explored and confirmed the fundamental ideas in The World as Will and Idea. Among these was On the Will in Nature (1836), in which he sought to provide scientific knowledge to support his theory of metaphysics. In 1838 he won a prize given by a scientific society in Norway for his essay on “whether free will could be proved from the evidence of consciousness.” A second essay on the source or foundation of morals followed the announcement of a prize competition by the Royal Danish Academy. But even though Schopenhauer was the only one to submit an essay, he did not win this prize. Nevertheless, these two essays were published in 1841 as The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics. In 1851 he published another major book titled Parerga and Paralipomena, which was a collection of essays on a variety of subjects. It included “On Women,” “On Religion,” “On Ethics,” “On Aesthetics,” “On Suicide,” “On the Suffering of the World,” and “On the Vanity of Existence.” This was the book that first brought him wide popularity.
We find the sources of Schopenhauer’s philosophy in his concentrated learning and equally in his pessimistic personal temperament. At an early stage one of his teachers urged him to concentrate his study of philosophy on Plato and Kant, and we can see the influence of these two seminal philosophers throughout his major work. In addition, Schopenhauer discovered another powerful but unlikely source of insight for his theory of metaphysics, namely, the classic of India the Upanishads. This work was brought to his attention by an Asian scholar, Friedrick Mayer, author of Brahma, or the Religion of the Hindus. This strand of Asian philosophy supports Schopenhauer’s combination of intellectual and temperamental conclusions that there is no more to experience than appearance. To the questions “Is this all?” and “Is this life?” the answer is a pessimistic “yes.” Schopenhauer’s pessimism was certainly a matter of temperament. However, he tried to distinguish between his pessimism, which he considered the product of his mature judgment based on “an objective recognition of folly,” on the one hand, and “malevolence of the wicked,” on the other. He called his pessimism “a noble displeasure that arises only out of a better nature revolting against unexpected wickedness.” He added that such pessimism as his is not directed at particular individuals only; rather, “it concerns all, and each individual is merely an example.” We might even say that Schopenhauer’s metaphysical system is not simply another way of dealing with the problems of metaphysics but is an elaborate metaphysical justification for a pessimistic outlook on life and reality.
The Principle of Sufficient Reason
As is frequently the case with an original thinker, at an early age Schopenhauer arrived at his major philosophical insights. The foundation for his systematic thought was formulated at age 25 in his doctoral dissertation On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In this work he sets out to answer the questions “What can I know?” and “What is the nature of things?” If this sounds grandiose, he intended to give nothing less than a thorough account of the whole scope of reality, and to accomplish this he relied on the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
In its simplest form, the Principle of Sufficient Reason states that “nothing is without a reason” (or “cause” or “because”). The most obvious application of this principle is found in the field of science, where the behavior and the relationships of physical objects are explained in a manner that is sufficient to satisfy the demands of reason or rationality. But Schopenhauer discovered that there are other variations besides this scientific form of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. This is so, he said, because there are objects other than those with which the scientist deals, and these other objects require unique forms of this governing principle.
Altogether, Schopenhauer set forth four basic forms of the Principle of Sufficient Reason corresponding to the four different kinds of ideas comprised in the whole range of human thought. There are four types of objects that give rise to different kinds of ideas:
1 . Physical objects. These exist and are causally related in space and time, which we know through our ordinary experience of things, and this provides the subject matter of the material sciences, such as, for example, physics. At this point Schopenhauer closely follows Kant’s basic theory that knowledge begins with experience but is not limited, as Hume thought, to what is empirically given or presented to us. Instead, the elements of our experience are organized by our human minds, which brings to our experience a priori categories of space, time, and causality as though these categories are lenses through which we look at objects. In this realm of phenomena, the Principle of Sufficient Reason explains becoming or change.
2 . Abstract concepts. These objects take the form of conclusions that we draw from other concepts, as when we apply the rules of inference or implication. The relationship between concepts and the conclusions they infer or imply is governed by the Principle of Sufficient Reason. This is the realm of logic, and here the Principle of Sufficient Reason is applied to the ways of knowing.
3 . Mathematical objects. Here we encounter, for example, arithmetic and geometry as they are related to space and time. Geometry is grounded in the principle that governs the various positions of the parts of space. Arithmetic, on the other hand, involves the parts of time, for as Schopenhauer says, “on the connection of the parts of time rests all counting.” He concludes that “the law according to which the parts of space and time . . . determine one another I call the principle of sufficient reason of being.”
4 . The self. “How can the self be an object?” Schopenhauer says that the self is the subject that wills and that this willing subject is the “object for the knowing subject.” This we can call self-consciousness. The principle that governs our knowledge of the relation between the self and its acts of will is “the principle of . . . sufficient reason of acting . . . more briefly, the law of motivation.”
From these four forms of the Principle of Sufficient Reason Schopenhauer draws the striking conclusion that necessity or determinism is present everywhere. He stresses the fact of necessity through the whole range of objects, whether they are physical objects, the abstract concepts of logic, mathematical objects, or the self as the object of a knowing subject. Thus, we encounter physical necessity, logical necessity, mathematical necessity, and moral necessity. This element of necessity in the very nature of things is what led Schopenhauer to hold that people behave in daily life by necessity. We simply react to the motives produced by our character, leaving aside the question of whether we are capable of altering their character. The pervasiveness of necessity produced in Schopenhauer a deep sense of pessimism, which permeates all his writings concerning human existence. His pessimism becomes clearly understandable when we consider his account of the place of human beings in the universe, an account that is the central concern of his major work.
The World as Will and Idea
Schopenhauer’s famous book The World as Will and Idea opens with the astonishing sentence “The world is my idea.” What makes this sentence astonishing is that each word of it, as is the case also with each word in the title of the book, is capable of conveying a strange impression if the word is given its ordinary everyday meaning. What Schopenhauer meant by the world and the definition and role he ascribed to will, as well as the account he provides of our ideas, gives these words unique meanings and constitutes the major insights of his theory of metaphysics.
For Schopenhauer the term world has the widest possible meaning. It includes human beings, animals, trees, stars, the moon, the earth, planets, and indeed the whole universe. But why call it my idea? Why not simply say that the world is “out there.” Earlier, British philosopher George Berkeley had formulated the proposition that to be is to be perceived. If something has to be perceived for it to be, what happens to that thing when you are not perceiving it? If you go out of your library, are the books still there? But Schopenhauer insists that anyone who reflects carefully about his experience of the world discovers that “what he knows is not a sun and an earth but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth; that the world which surrounds him is there only as idea.” This means, he says, 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 as Idea
The English word idea does not convey the meaning of the German word vorstellung used by Schopenhauer, and the difference between the two meanings helps to explain why the sentence “The world is my idea” strikes us as strange. As used by Schopenhauer, the word vorstellung means, literally, anything that is “set in front of” or “placed before,” or that is a “presentation.” This refers to everything that is placed before or presented to our consciousness or understanding, so that the “world as idea” or “my idea” refers not only to what we think about (that is, ideas in the narrow view) but equally to what we hear, feel, or perceive in various other ways. There is no other object out there besides what we perceive, or, as Schopenhauer says, “The whole actual, that is active world is determined as such through the understanding and apart from it is nothing.” The world presents itself to us as an object to a subject, and we as subjects know only the world we perceive. Thus, “the whole world of objects is and remains idea, and therefore wholly and forever determined by the subject.”
It may be that no person’s idea of the world is perfect, that therefore “my idea” will not be the same as “your idea.” But each person can say that “the world is my idea” for the simple reason that I do not know anything about the world other than what I perceive or what is placed before my understanding. Moreover, the “world” surely continues to exist even if I no longer exist. Nevertheless, I do not know a more real world than the one I perceive. Perceptions are the basis of knowledge. In addition to perceptions we are able to formulate abstract conceptions. These abstract conceptions—for example, the idea of “tree” and “house”—have a very practical function. As Schopenhauer writes, “by means of them the original material of knowledge is more easily handled, surveyed, and arranged.” These abstract conceptions are therefore not simply flights of fancy. Indeed, Schopenhauer says, the value of abstract conceptions depends on whether they rely on or are “abstracted” from original perceptions—that is, from actual experience—for “conceptions and abstractions which do not ultimately refer to perceptions are like paths in the woods that end without leading out of it.” To say, therefore, that “the world is my idea” does not suggest that my idea of the world is an abstract conception unless this conception is, as it is for Schopenhauer, firmly based on perceptions. Hence, the world is my idea because it is an objective or empirical presentation to me as an understanding subject.
The World as Will
Nowhere is it more important to clarify Schopenhauer’s language than in his use of the term will. Ordinarily, we use the word will to signify a conscious and deliberate choice to behave in a certain way. We consider the will an attribute or faculty possessed by a rational person. There can be no question that the will is influenced by reason. But this account does not prepare us for Schopenhauer’s use of the term will—a use so novel and significant as to constitute the central theme or essence of his systematic philosophy.
Schopenhauer’s concept of the will represents his major disagreement with Kant’s theory of the thing-in-itself. Kant had said that we can never know things as they are in themselves. We are always on the outside of things and can never penetrate their inner nature. But Schopenhauer thought he had found a “single narrow door to the truth.” There is, he said, a major exception to the notion that we are forever on the outside of things. That exception is our experience or knowledge, “which each of us has of his own willing.” Our bodily action is normally thought to be the product of willing, but for Schopenhauer willing and action are not two different things but rather one and the same thing. “The action of the body,” he says, “is nothing but the act of the will objectified . . . it is only a reflection that to will and to act are different.” What we know of ourselves within our consciousness is that “we are not merely a knowing subject, but, in another aspect, we ourselves also belong to the inner nature that is to be known.” He concludes that “we ourselves are the thing in itself.” And the thing in itself is will, or as Schopenhauer says, “the act of will is . . . the closest and most distinct manifestation of the thing in itself.” This, then, is that single narrow door to the truth, namely, the discovery that the will is the essence of each person. While we are forever on the outside of everything else, we ourselves belong to the inner nature that can be known. This leads Schopenhauer to conclude that this “way from within [ourselves] stands open for us to that inner nature belonging to things in themselves,” so that “in this sense I teach that the inner nature of everything is will.” Since “everything” is what constitutes the world, it follows in Schopenhauer’s thought that we must view the world as will.
For Schopenhauer the will does not belong solely to rational people. The will is to be found in everything that is—in animals and even in inanimate things. There is, in fact, only one will, and each thing is a specific manifestation of that will. Schopenhauer attributes the working of will to all of reality, saying that “the will is the agent in all the inner and unconscious bodily functions, the organism being itself nothing but the will. In all natural forces the active impulse is identical with will. In all instances where we find any spontaneous movements or any primal forces, we must regard the innermost essence as will. The will reveals itself as completely in a single oak tree as in a million.” There is, then, in the whole of nature a pervasive force, energy, or what Schopenhauer calls “a blind incessant impulse.” Moreover, he speaks of will as “endless striving,” and this impulse, working “without knowledge” through all nature, is finally “the will to live.”
The Ground of Pessimism
Here we come upon the reason for Schopenhauer’s pessimism. His concept of the will portrays the whole system of nature as moving in response to the driving force in all things. All things are like puppets “set in motion by internal clockwork.” The lowliest being (for example, the amoeba) or the highest (that is, a human being) is driven by the same force, the will. The blind will that produces human behavior “is the same which makes the plants grow.” Every individual bears the stamp of a “forced condition.” Schopenhauer thus rejects the assumption that human beings are superior to animals because animals are controlled only by instincts whereas people are rational beings. The intellect, he says, is itself fashioned by the universal will so that the human intellect is on the same level as the instincts of animals. Moreover, intellect and will in human beings are not to be thought of as two separate faculties. Instead, the intellect is for Schopenhauer an attribute of the will; it is secondary or, in a philosophical sense, accidental. It can sustain intellectual effort only for short periods of time. It declines in strength and requires rest, and it is, finally, a function of the body. By contrast, the will continues without interruption to sustain and support life. During dreamless sleep the intellect does not function, whereas all the organic functions of the body continue. These organic functions are manifestations of the will. While other thinkers spoke of the freedom of the will, Schopenhauer says, “I prove its omnipotence.”
The omnipotence of the will in all of nature has pessimistic implications for human beings. As Schopenhauer says, “men are only apparently drawn from in front; really, they are pushed from behind; it is not life that tempts them on, but necessity that drives them forward.” The primal drive in all of nature is to produce life. The will to live has no other purpose than to continue the cycle of life. Schopenhauer portrays the realm of nature as a fierce struggle where the will to live inevitably produces conflict and destruction. This will to live for one element of nature requires the destruction of other elements or parties. No purpose or aim is violated during this conflict; the underlying drive of the will leaves no alternative outcome. Schopenhauer tells of a report of a place in Java where, for as far as the eye can see, the land is covered with skeletons, which gives the impression of a battlefield. These are skeletons of large turtles, five feet long, three feet wide, and three feet high. They come out of the sea to lay their eggs and are then attacked by wild dogs, which flip them on their backs, strip off their armor, and eat them alive. Now, Schopenhauer says, “all this misery repeats itself thousands and thousands of times, year out, year in. For this, those turtles were born . . . it is thus the will to live objectifies itself.”
If we move from the animal world to the human race, Schopenhauer admits that the matter becomes more complicated, “but the fundamental character remains unaltered.” Individual human beings do not have any value for nature because “it is not the individual but only the species that nature cares for.” Human life turns out to be by no means a gift for enjoyment but is “a task, a drudgery to be performed.” Millions of people are united into nations striving for the common good, but thousands fall as a sacrifice for it. “Now senseless delusions, not intriguing politics, incite them to wars with each other. . . . In peace industry and trade are active, inventions work miracles, seas are navigated, delicacies are collected from all ends of the world.” But, asks Schopenhauer, what is the aim of all this striving? His answer is “To sustain ephemeral and tormented individuals through a short span of time.”
Life, Schopenhauer says, is a bad bargain. The disproportion between human trouble, on the one hand, and reward, on the other, means that life involves the exertion of all our strength “for something that is of no value.” There is nothing to look forward to except “the satisfaction of hunger and the sexual instinct, or in any case a little momentary comfort.” His conclusion is that “life is a business, the proceeds of which are very far from covering the cost of it.” There can be no true happiness because happiness is simply a temporary cessation of human pain. Pain in turn is caused by desire, and expression of need or want, most of which can never be fulfilled. Finally, human life “is a striving without aim or end.” And “the life of every individual . . . is really always a tragedy, but gone through in detail, it has the character of a comedy.”
Is There Any Escape from the “Will”?
How is it possible for a person to escape from the overpowering force of the “will” that pervades everything in nature? Schopenhauer suggests at least two avenues of escape, namely, through ethics and aesthetics. From a moral perspective we can deny passions and desire; from an aesthetic standpoint we can contemplate artistic beauty. There is, of course, the question of whether the power of the universal will is so strong that any escape from it can only be temporary.
What complicates a person’s life and causes pain is the continuous will to live, which expresses itself in the form of endless desires. Desire produces aggressiveness, striving, destruction, and self-centeredness. If there could be some way to reduce the intensity of human desire, a person could achieve at least periodic moments of happiness. To be sure, Schopenhauer always reminds us that “man is at bottom a dreadful wild animal . . . in no way inferior to the tiger or hyena.” Still, we are able from time to time to rise to a level of thought and consciousness that is above the realm of things. Problems arise when we desire things and other people, for these objects of desire stimulate our inner will to live at the level of both hunger and procreation. But when these biological functions are satisfied, there still remains the aim of physical survival against violence and conquest. Beyond even this level a person can, Schopenhauer says, understand the difference between the specific individual objects of his desire and certain general or universal objects. That is, we are capable of knowing not only the individuals John and Mary but also universal humanity. This should enable us to move from an intense desire for a person to a sense of sympathy for all humankind. To this extent desire can give way to an ethics of a more disinterested love. At this point we recognize that we all share the same nature, and this awareness can produce an ethics of gentleness. Or, as Schopenhauer says, “My true inner being exists in every living creature as immediately as in my own consciousness. It is this confession that breaks forth as pity, on which every unselfish virtue rests, and whose practical expression is every good deed. It is this conviction to which every appeal to gentleness, love and mercy is directed; for these remind us of the respect in which we are all the same being.”
In a similar way aesthetic enjoyment can shift our attention away from those objects that stimulate our aggressive will to live and focus attention instead on objects of contemplation that are unrelated to passion and desire. When we contemplate a work of art, we become a pure knowing subject—as opposed to a willing subject. What we observe in art, whether in painting or even music, is the general or universal element. We see in a painting of a person not some specific person but a representation of some aspect of humanity that we all share. Here Schopenhauer expresses views very similar to Plato’s concept of Forms and shows the strong influence of the philosophy of India. Here, too, Schopenhauer’s ethics and aesthetics have a similar function, for they both attempt to raise our consciousness above earthly, passion-filled striving to a level beyond the activity of the will where the supreme act is restful contemplation.
In spite of these attempts through ethics and aesthetics to escape from the restricting and directing power of the universal will, Schopenhauer simply does not succeed in discovering a truly free individual will in human beings. His last word on the subject of human behavior is that “our individual actions are . . . in no way free . . . so that every individual . . . can absolutely never do anything other than precisely what he does at that particular moment.”
German Idealism developed in reaction to Kant’s philosophy. According to Fichte Kant’s view of an unknowable noumenal realm of things-in-themselves was implausible. To address that deficiency, he adapted Kant’s notion of mental categories: perceived reality is not just a construction of the categories in my mind, but, instead the manifestation of an Absolute Mind. Much of German Idealist philosophy has a pantheistic thrust: all objects, and indeed the whole universe, are simply the thoughts of an Absolute Mind (i.e., God).
Like Fichte, Hegel similarly argued that we must reject the notion of an unknowable thing-in-itself and recognize that the nature of reality is the thought of the Absolute. The Absolute is a dynamic process that encompasses everything, just as a tree has parts but is nevertheless unified into a complex system. The dynamic process by which the Absolute operates is dialectic insofar as it involves a tension of opposites. It begins with a thesis, then moves to an opposing antithesis, then resolves into a synthesis between these two. But the process continues as this synthesis now becomes a new thesis, which is opposed by an antithesis, yielding a new synthesis. The process continues until it ends in the Absolute Idea. He illustrates this dialectic process with the notions of being, nonbeing, and becoming. The notion of pure being is without specific content and is thus indefinable and absent of any concrete description. As such, it is closely connected to the notion of nonbeing. The idea of becoming emerges from this when we realize that being and nonbeing are unified.
All aspects of Hegel’s philosophical system involve this dialectic. To say that I am a self (subjectivity) implies that there is a not-self (objectivity); the synthesis of these two is the Idea, and, ultimately, the Absolute Idea. Similarly, from the thesis of subjective spirit there emerges the antithesis is objective spirit, and then synthesis is Absolute Spirit. In morality, the dialectic is from right (thesis), to morality (antithesis), and then to social ethics (synthesis). In political philosophy, it is family (thesis), to society (antithesis), to state (synthesis). In world history, the dialectic process is a conflict between nations through which freedom is developed. Regarding knowledge of the absolute, it starts with aesthetics and religious art (thesis), to religion and pictorial thought (antithesis), to philosophy and pure thought (synthesis).
Schopenhauer’s early philosophy was an analysis of the principle of sufficient reason (the view that nothing occurs without a cause), and concludes that everything is determined, including all human action. In his later philosophy he defended the view that the world is will, that is, everything in the cosmos, from the lowest amoeba to a human, is driven by a blind impulse within nature that operates with mechanical rigidity. The sole purpose of the will to live is to continue the cycle of life, which is a fierce struggle that produces conflict and destruction. Human societies strive for a common good, but it is at the expense of countless people who are sacrificed for it. Nature does not care for the individual person, and for all of our individual efforts we gain nothing of value. The only escape from this is ethics and aesthetics. With ethics we restrain our individual desires and acquire a sympathy for all humanity. With aesthetics, we shift focus away from objects that stimulate aggression and instead contemplate aesthetic beauty.
1. Fichte argued that Kant’s view of an unknowable noumenal realm was not plausible. Explain and discuss his point.
2. Using your own example, explain Hegel’s dialectic process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
3. Discuss Hegel’s view that the concepts of being and nonbeing are so intertwined that the one immediately leads to the other.
4. Discuss Hegel’s view of the dialectic process that begins with conflict between nations and ends with the development of freedom and whether you agree with his fundamental point.
5. Discuss Hegel’s view of the dialectic process that moves from aesthetics (thesis) to religion (antithesis) to philosophy (synthesis), and whether you agree with his view regarding the similarities and differences between religion and philosophy
6. Hegel’s and Berkeley’s philosophies are both classified as “idealist” yet are substantially different. How do their two forms of idealism differ?
7. Hegel’s philosophy is sometimes described as “pantheistic.” Identify the pantheistic elements and compare it to the pantheistic views of Parmenides, Eckhart, or Spinoza.
8. Discuss Schopenhauer’s view that nature, and all it contains including humans, is driven by a blind and mechanical impulse, and whether you agree.
9. Schopenhauer argued that ethics and aesthetics are the only possible escapes from perpetual conflicts within nature. Discuss how they accomplish this and whether there might be other escapes that he had not mentioned.
10. Schopenhauer’s philosophy is especially pessimistic. Even if we accept his view that everything in nature is determined and driven by conflict, is there a more optimistic conclusion that we can draw from it?