Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Schopenhauer, pessimism, ethics

Schopenhauer's so-called advance on Kant/Plato in claiming that beyond the phenomenal world, the world as we construct it, lies the thing in itself, which is that there is a single reality - namely Will.  There is a unitary willing and striving.  This willing and striving thing, of which we are all part, implies that harming any other part of it is like harming yourself.  Clearly this is a Buddhist-resonant idea, which he takes to a similar place as Buddhists - namely in considering this state of affairs to be something which ought to be resisted.  

But who is doing the resisting?  Certainly not the individual 'us' of the ideal world.  And is the singular willing and striving itself motivated to end this willing and striving?  Isn't that a kind of metaphysical suicide?

Next, when you typically hear talk of morals or ethics, you normally think in terms of a world of two or more beings, often with some form of free will.  Rarely in the history of philosophy do you hear of a moral system or an ethics where the reality itself contains a singular thing.  (Spinoza comes to mind also).  So where is Schopenhauer on the moral or ethical implications of his worlds of idea and will?  If a moral/ethical system is an object of the phenomenal world, then clearly it has much less philosophical interest in his philosophy, as it represents, pace Plato and Kant, a kind of operation on a local deception, namely the world of idea.  So his argument that harming other beings, including other animals, is in a sense a form of self-harm is at once a merely phenomenal/ideational/shadows on cave-wall.  Can a Shcopenhaurian ethics and moral system merely be a function of shadows on the cave wall?  If on the other hand it has a basis in the thing-in-itself, through which mechanism does it express itself?  Puzzling is why there's a seeming bias towards those fractions of the singular will which manifest as humans and animals.  Aren't stones of equal weight to the singular striving?  If not, why not?

But can this singularity, this seemingly eternal striving, really have a moral system?  On what basis does he believe that this singular striving essence ought not to harm itself?  Isn't his claim that through the life of the acetic will-destroying sub-Buddhist the willing reaches a kind of freedom from striving a form of suicide?  Isn't this being set up not as an admonition, but as a goal?  In other words, isn't suicide the primary direction of the striving?

Part of this hinges on the question of whether there's a cyclic or a directed element of the evolution of the life story of the willing.  If there's no direction possible, no change achievable, then the suicide of the willing is clearly a non-starter.  But I don't think Schopenhauer believes this.  I think he sees a direction or progression in the willing, rather as Hegel sees History as having a similar, albeit temporal dimension.  Clearly Schopenhauer's willing cannot have such a temporal element since perception of time is an attribute of the world as idea - i.e. we make that view up in our heads.

But if there can be a kind of metaphysical evolving or unfolding of the willing, then it seems to be towards the goal of its own self-extinction.  But does it succeed?  If it does, where does that leave the so-called pessimism of Schopenhauer?  And if it cannot succeed, then all his talk of debasing our own individual lives through asceticism is surely just one more  kind of unsatisfied striving which we're supposed to be quite familiar with already.  Why privilege that particular form of evanescent striving over any other?

I'm leaving aside all the usual arguments about how could we come to know anything about this willing, that's a separate issue.

For Schopenhauer the fact that striving is blind, undirected, condemns humans to suffering.  But I don't see why he makes this leap.  Just as acceptable is an optimistic perspective on this undirected striving.  I imagine dancing with your eyes closed, perhaps under the influence of some drug, as a kind of striving which is blind but doesn't involve suffering in the sense which is normally used.  Clearly Schopenhauer has something else in mind when he thinks of 'suffering' other than the suffering at the ideal realm.  If suffering at the level of willing means just the recognition that a permanent achievement is forever out of reach, that still doesn't show me why the willing might be suffering.  Can't the willing be inspired  enlivened,   motivated by the raw fact of striving?  Isn't there a more Buddhist 'attitude' which the willing could have used to address their existential situation?  It seems an awfully big failing of this proto-Buddhist philosophy to leave in the willing's suffering.  Any anyway, why does he make such a negative fist of the infinite nature of this striving too?  If he's right to claim that the willing is an endless series of strivings and temporary satisfactions, followed by the onset of boredom, isn't that another way of saying that there's actually an infinite amount of heterogeneous satisfactions that willing will experience?  Again, that doesn't sound too bad to a non-Buddhist's ear.  And if the selection of the transitory object of the next striving is driven by an essentially blind or random process, that in itself guarantees a certain kind of novelty in the selection (though I think hunger and sex accounts for probably a good fraction of the cases).  The point remains, how you characterise the life of willing, as experienced by it, does not obviously have to be characterised as essentially suffering.

It seems to me further that Schopenhauer's other great way of getting to touch the willing, through contemplation of art, is so riddled with inconsistencies as to not be worth looking much at.  These two rather Heath Robinson ways of witnessing the willing stare each other in the face and present numerous difficulties to each other.  What about passion-rousing art?  Schopenhauer has to invent various kinds of category of art, again privileging some over others, to make his system seem consistent to the casual observer.  In short, Schopenhauer can't draw any conclusion about art from his philosophy, which is a bit of a shame, since this is where a lot of his immediate influence lay (Wagner, Nietzsche).  Why can only artistic geniuses produce this?  Are they the only ones who additionally can perceive this?

There's a weird kind of hygiene problem in Schopenhauer - with Plato, painting takes you even further away from the ideal world than the objects being painted.  Schopenhauer sees it as getting closer.  Likewise our experience of our own willings get us a kind of experience of the thing in itself which is inappropriately close, or unjustifiably close.  Finally, with music he gets even closer to the thing in itself by claiming that our experience of it is somehow pre-representational.  This is a breakdown too far and makes a mockery of the phenomenal-noumenal distinction.  

Schopenhauer claims that simultaneously humans are determined but the willing is entuirely free.  How can it be?  It is, according to him, driven to an endless and endlessly frustrating striving, a blind striving.  This doesn't sound like it is entirely free.  Even if you allow for the possibility of self-extinction, that itself doesn't allow him to claim that the willing is entirely free.

Not only does Schopenhauer believe that salvation is possible by the willing's self-extinction, but that the first move towards this is his rather feeble claim that realising that we are all one somehow will make us less likely to harm others, since at bottom harming others is self-harm.  Let me get this straight: the admonition to not harm others as it only is harming part of yourself at a deeper level is the beginning of the realisation of the goal which sees willing self-extinguish.  

You can also sense in Schopenhauer a re-description of the essentially progressivist Hegelian activity of internal dialectical struggle, constantly moving on and constantly making things better.  For Hegel this is an envisioned struggling but for Schopenhauer, it is a blind struggle.  This metaphysical distinction perhaps has its echo in their different views on the possibility of social improvement and cultural direction, Hegel being more of an optimist than Schopenhauer.

Also unclear is how it could be that you take the will to create life, the will to life as the essence of humans and pair it with an ought-based moral system which encourages the very opposite.  Why work to extinguish the will to life?  This not only is never clear to me, but additionally is somewhat perverse as the basis of a moral system.

Of course, Nietzsche was best at critiquing Schopenhauer's unjustified and perhaps unhealthy negativity around this idea that the thing in itself was blind, endless willing.