Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy (1988)

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Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy, by Rüdiger Safranski (1988).

Score: An excellent introduction to Schopenhauer’s life and work.

I never thought I would agree with Schopenhauer in anything, and though I’m thoroughly convinced that the man was comically insufferable, lo and behold, I stand corrected. Schopenhauer and the wild years of philosophy combines exposition of the philosopher’s personal life, social and historical context, intellectual influences and original thought.

Born in Danzig in 1788 to a prominent merchant and a educated patrician twenty years her husband’s junior, Schopenhauer had a neglected childhood and was expected to inherit his father’s commercial empire, much to his dismay, since he loved the intellectual life with a passion since a very young age. The untimely death of his father freed him of such a commitment, and he, his mother and his sister lived comfortable lives after selling the the trading company. Arthur was free to go to university and in 1819 he published The world as will and representation, his magnum opus that he regarded as his child and legacy to humanity. Unfortunately, his belligerent opposition to the back-then trends of philosophy (namely, German idealism), his pathological pride and unpleasant nature caused him to be ignored for most of his life, and being ahead of his time for at least half a century he was only appreciated as a philosopher after he died. Probably because he wasn’t there anymore to tell anyone trying to interpret his work how illiterate and wrong they were.

His main thesis, recovering Kant and walking right around idealism, is that the world can be understood as the dichotomy between will and representation. External objects appear to us as representation through our senses and those impressions can be manipulated and composed through reason. But the ding an sich, forbidden and untouchable in Kant’s philosophy, is defined by Schopenhauer as will: what lies inside of us, when we strip ourselves of all that we could consider as an object or a representation, is will. Will to live, hunger, thirst, lust, desire, loneliness, ambition, longing and satisfaction. The will is what drives the world, animals, plants and our every action as human beings. Since will is essentially selfish and desire is essentially insatiable, inaction is sanctity and the selfless contemplation of art is one of the few ways out of dissatisfaction. As a consequence, the only root of ethics is sympathy, since duty, or the hope for a reward and fear of punishment, by extension, are selfish motivations and driven by will. Recognising the other as a subject, capable of suffering just like me, is the only thing that can justify ethical behaviour.

Safranski’s narration is swift and light, deep and informative at the same time. Undergraduate knowledge of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Feuerbach is desirable to get the most out of the book, as well as German history of the 19th century. If you don’t know a lot about this, you will when you’re done.

If you would like to get acquaintanced with the work of the philosopher of the Will, this is a great place to get started.

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