Impertinent Questions WITH DAVID CARTWRIGHT

By Skinner, David | Humanities, March/April 2011 | Go to article overview

Impertinent Questions WITH DAVID CARTWRIGHT


Skinner, David, Humanities


The strange and fascinating life of Arthur Schopenhauer is the subject of this edition of Impertinent Questions. Professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, David Cartwright recently published the first full-fledged English-language biography of the great German philosopher in many decades. With an NEH collaborative research grant, he and Edward Erdmann are translating four of Schopenhauer's works: The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, On the Fourfold Root and Other Wrivngs, On Vision and Colors and On the Will in Nature, which are being published by Cambridge and Oxford University presses.

Do people still read Schopenhauer?

Of course. My German colleagues claim he is the most widely read philosopher in the world. The Swiss historian of ideas Urs App recently told a story of discovering five Italian translations of Schopenhauer in a holiday shop on a ferry that ran to Sardinia. Schopenhauer's wide readership, however, is largely outside of academe, but academic interest has been growing fest in the last three decades.

When was the most recent biography of Schopenhauer published?

There had been a few studies in English at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century and in the 1 930s (Schopenhauer was even mentioned by Gershwin and Hart in popular songs). In 1 989 and 1 990, translations of Arthur Hübscher's magnificent Denker gegen den Strom and Rüdiger Safranksi's rich Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy were published. But it seemed time to take a more comprehensive view of his life and thought.

Schopenhauer studied zoology, but what does the bulldog ant have to do with his philosophy?

Everything! If you observe the behavior of a bulldog ant cut in two, you can understand some of Schopenhauer's basic claims, namely, the inevitability of conflict in a world in which every individual thing struggles to snatch the matter of another, despite the metaphysical unity of being (everything is will). The head of a bisected bulldog ant bites the tail as the tail stings the head, and this battle continues until both parts are dead or other ants devour the two parts. Schopenhauer daims the will to life is a hungry will, and he reminds us that we are the walking graveyards of thousands of living beings.

I don't know how else to put this: Was Schopenhauer a cat person or a dog person?

A dog person. He owned a series of poodles, calling each "Atma" formally and "Butz" informally. He once told a dinner companion that when his dog was mischievous, he would scold it by saying, "You are not a dog, but a human being, a human being," and he claimed that this would shame the dog.

Schopenhauer played the flute, a biographical detail that really struck Nietzsche. How so?

Nietzsche used Schopenhauer's flute-playing and faith in morality to question whether Schopenhauer was really a pessimist. I think that Nietzsche was trying to redeem the man he once called his "only educator, the great Arthur Schopenhauer," and that he wanted to find that Schopenhauer agreed with him at some unconscious level. Nietzsche also claimed that a hatred of women and Hegel seduced Schopenhauer back to life.

Schopenhauer often seemed distrustful of humanity, but his philosophy is greatly animated by a concern for the suffering of others.

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