The Routledge Companion to Nineteenth Century Philosophy

By Dean Moyar | Go to book overview

11
SCHOPENHAUER

David E. Wellbery

Although his niche in the musée imaginaire of canonical philosophers is assured, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) certainly doesn’t owe his historical significance to the sponsorship of a vital tradition of philosophical work. Oblivion long ago engulfed his nineteenth-century acolytes (Philipp Mainländer, Eduard von Hartmann), and his most agile reader, Friedrich Nietzsche, found his own philosophical voice by emancipating himself from the thrall of Schopenhauerian pessimism. Scrutiny will also show that those philosophers of the twentieth century who drew inspiration from Schopenhauer’s writing (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Gehlen, Max Horkheimer) could do so only while rejecting his central themes. Today Schopenhauer’s thought, in contradistinction to the work of his master Kant and his antipode Hegel, no longer provides a conceptual frame for serious philosophical inquiry. The twin pillars of his systematic edifice (the skeptical reconstruction of Kant’s epistemology and the doctrine of the metaphysical Will) are generally dismissed as erroneous or whimsical; the scholarship devoted to his work is, for the most part, antiquarian. One wonders wherein his importance lies.

A possible answer is that Schopenhauer presents us with the intriguing case of a philosopher whose work elicits conviction primarily through the force of aesthetic presentation. The achievement of his masterpiece The World as Will and Representation (1996 [1818], hereafter WWR) and its companion publications is to project a compelling, albeit dark and slanted, image of the totality of life. The single thought that Schopenhauer means his system to exfoliate – the thought that the world is Will and representation throughout – is most aptly interpreted as an encompassing metaphor. A variant of that metaphor opens book 2 of WWR: as long as we endeavor to grasp the essence of things along lines set down by the principle of sufficient reason (Satz vom Grunde), we resemble someone circling a castle, in vain seeking an entrance, and occasionally sketching – as if that could help! – the façade (WWR I, Par. 17). It is a telling fact that the core thought of a philosophical system could find perspicuous formulation in a single conceit. And it is equally telling that Franz Kafka consigned the protagonist of his novel The Castle (published 1926) to an existence within the space of meaning limned by this very figure. The conspicuous feature of Schopenhauer’s legacy is that it has been most fecund not in academic philosophy (for which his contempt was boundless), but in a tradition of literary writing that includes,

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