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Poodle as Representation, Rottweiler as Will

Christopher Ryan takes a dogged look at Schopenhauer’s view of the world.

It is two hundred years since the publication of Schopenhauer’s chief work, The World as Will and Representation. It contains four main books – the first a Kantian-inspired account of the subject of knowledge, or epistemology; the second an anti-Kantian account of the subject of willing, or metaphysics; the third a Platonic-inspired account of the subject of contemplation, or aesthetics; and the fourth an Eastern religion-inspired account of the ascetic subject, or ethics in its broadest sense. These four books Schopenhauer regarded as different aspects of a unified single thought, examined from different perspectives.

Arthur Schopenhauer by Ron Schepper, 2019

The World as Will and Representation had zero immediate impact on contemporary philosophical debates, probably because of the uniquely devastating account that Schopenhauer’s single thought conveyed concerning the nature and value of human life. After a brief but unsuccessful attempt at establishing himself as an unpaid Lecturer (Privatdozent) at the University of Berlin, during which he deliberately scheduled his lectures at the same time as those of Hegel, Schopenhauer retreated into private life. His main companion in his later years was a white poodle named Atma, after the Sanskrit term for the Self that is identical with the inner essence of the universe, Brahman. When Atma died in 1849, Schopenhauer acquired a second poodle, brown this time, which he also named Atma.

Schopenhauer’s epistemology and metaphysics are very much at odds with one another, and the grand tragedy of life that unfolds over the four books of The World as Will and Representation turns on the opposition between what Schopenhauer calls the knowing subject (the epistemological subject) and the willing subject (the metaphysical subject). Schopenhauer’s account of perceiving and conceiving explains how events at the level of physical sensation end up being experienced, that is, represented to us, as an ordered, domesticated and very human world in which events and states of matter follow on from one another in systematic connection according to strict rules. But this ironed-out scene of regularity is felt at the emotional and moral level as a chaos in which personal expectations are more often thwarted than fulfilled. And once we dig down to the metaphysical level that is the inner side of the ordered scenes of appearance, the moral fright experienced by the non-intellectual side of our nature confirms its reservations concerning existence. The metaphysician is confronted by a monstrously anti-human and frightening principle whose sole activity is to strive chaotically after ends without possibility of final satisfaction: the will.

Schopenhauer and dog

The contrast between the two species of subject – that of knowing and that of willing – could not be greater. What is most jarring for a human life is that these two opposed subjects flow together in experience to make a compound self, and though most cultures have promoted identification with the ordered and domesticated perspective of the knowing subject, Schopenhauer’s metaphysics contends that the true and enduring part of us is grounded in the chaotic and insatiably willing subject. The pleasing surface of Atma in both her white and brown incarnations reveals itself, behind the scenes, to be a slavering, menacing brute, alien to notions of goodness and beauty.

The World Schopenhauer Inherits From Kant

Schopenhauer’s epistemology departs directly from that of Immanuel Kant, specifically Kant’s 1781 work The Critique of Pure Reason.

Kant divided acts of knowledge into two – a material part that we passively receive through our senses, and a formal part that is the active interpretation of the sense-data through categories that pre-exist in our minds. To take an analogy from modern computers unavailable to either Kant or Schopenhauer, my laptop can only read a document if I have already downloaded the relevant application that can read the code in the document. Without that program – if I download a document and open it in another application, for instance – I receive not sense, but a chaos of incomprehensible symbols. In Kant’s epistemology, the material part of knowledge that I encounter at the level of physical sensation is comparable to the content of the document, the formal part to the application that I have a priori on my computer which can read it. In other words, for the external world to become known to me, it must first be filtered through the structures in my mind which arrange the raw data of my senses, so that the chaotic torrent of sensation that impacts my senses ends up as ordered chunks of experience and knowledge. But this means that the world that we all seem to know so intimately and immediately, and is common to us all, is partly our own unconscious creation, rather than existing independent of our experience or knowledge of it. As we may say, objects do not walk straight into our experience raw and simple, but our minds have a kind of door policy dress-code, according to which objects must first be draped in forms that we have thrown over them before we admit them entry and baptise them as ‘knowledge’. The world of our experience is therefore partly ideal, or constructed by the mind, and partly real, that is, existing independently of the mind. One upshot of this is that what we call objective knowledge is merely common agreement among minds with the same formal constitution: what the world is apart from these forms, or apart from being known or experienced, we cannot know. Kant dubbed the realm apart from our experience or knowledge of it the world of ‘things-in-themselves’, in order to denote their radically inaccessible character.

Representation Through Perception & Cognition

The first page of The World as Will and Representation demonstrates Schopenhauer’s dependence on Kant, for there we learn that the knowing subject “is not acquainted with either the sun or the earth, but rather only with an eye that sees a sun, with a hand that feels an earth”, so that the world of experience is a re-presentation of what exists independent of the complicated machinery of representing. When Schopenhauer turns his attention to Atma, he receives a series of scattered sense-data which have yet to be turned into any type of experience. At this stage there is no object that is known, for that requires the intervention of the understanding which, operating like an artist, combines the variable data of sense into a unified object liable to a causal sequence of events that occur in temporal order and which exists in a space external to the senses. For Schopenhauer, these forms – space, time, causality, and unified objecthood – do not originally belong to the physical sense data; but by way of their mediation, Atma now appears before Schopenhauer in all her resplendent, canine glory, as a re-presentation of the data of sense.

Schopenhauer and dog

In addition to the perceptual knowledge that we share with Atma – dogs and other animals have mentally-ordered sensations of the world too – humans have a higher level of knowledge, through concepts. Concepts are, as Schopenhauer calls them, reflections of objects of perception, or representations of representations. They do not refer to anything specific, but are abstractions which group together similar aspects of the variable objects of perception and force them into classes or kinds. So, whereas Schopenhauer perceives Atma to be a white or brown fluffy, wet-nosed, four-legged, slightly pungent barking creature, his concept of ‘dog’ applies to all dogs, irrespective of colour, size, texture of coat, disposition, or breed.

Concepts are of great use to humans, insofar as they empower us to think in more general terms about things that are not present, and so survey past and future, co-ordinate our activities, and build societies and civilisations. However, the ability to lever ourselves off the present moment that reason, the medium of concepts, provides, can be a double-edged sword, insofar as concepts take us one step further away from what objectively exists even than what we encounter in perception, and the most abstract concepts have very little reality in them at all. In addition, even within the midst of comfort, concepts disclose to humans the possibility of future disaster, and especially the certainty of our individual deaths. By contrast, animals such as Atma are absorbed in their present, and feel either pleasure or pain by possession or non-possession of a comfy bed or a bone. Moreover, the power to survey all of human life and the world that’s given through concepts gives rise to humanity’s need for a metaphysical account of life which will provide both an explanation for why the world exists, but more importantly, consolation for the knowledge that its particular conditions make no concession to the comfort or security of its inhabitants.

Direct Knowledge

This need for metaphysical knowledge of reality, particular to humans, is somewhat thwarted by the situation I’ve just outlined – that reality can only appear to us once it has passed through the filters of the mind, and then is placed at an even greater distance when we think about it through the medium of concepts. The epistemological subject, or subject of knowledge, has no primary contact with the reality behind the appearances in our minds. This turns out to be a counsel of despair: when Schopenhauer gazes upon Atma, he cannot be sure whether or not that lovable, drooling ball of tonsured fur is the same in essence, or apart from his experience, as she appears to him. But given Schopenhauer’s devotion to Atma, he has a need to know what his faithful companion really is apart from the way she appears to him as an object of perceptual knowledge.

Luckily, claims Schopenhauer, the need for metaphysical knowledge can be satisfied, but on an indirect path. This is because humans are more than merely perceiving and conceiving beings, or subjects of knowledge, but are also embodied individuals. So we each have exclusive, inner and non-representational access to one of the objects in the world of appearances that we are seeking to understand: our own embodied self. My experience of my body is twofold. I perceive it like other objects as an appearance, inhabiting space, changing over time, and causally interacting with other bodies in nature. But simultaneously I have access to my body on the inside, as a bundle of feelings about myself and my relation to external events – content about certain things, at odds with most others, planning to institute changes in my environment or world, desiring this potential state, and fearful of other states.

In addition to these representations external or internal, whenever we make a choice or decision to act, we also have a direct experience of our will’s operating which is not given in terms of any type of representation, either of the world or of our own feelings and thoughts. To Schopenhauer this experience of willing is not a representation of the world, but a direct experience of the inner nature of the world, which he calls ‘will’ (Wille in German). This inner experience of myself as a striving, yearning being is immediate, and so real, and it wells up directly within me without the mediation of the forms of knowledge that makes my encounters with the external world the product of preconscious activity, and hence appearance only. Schopenhauer proposes that we take this unique inner datum of the experience of willing as the key to the riddle of existence, and hence as the guiding thread for the reflections by which we might satisfy our metaphysical need.

Schopenhauer and dog

At this point however, the knowing subject has merely solved the riddle of his or her own existence, encountering their body on the outside as representation or appearance, and on the inside as will. But what about the rest of nature? What about Atma? Can I assume that Atma, who appears in my perception much as my own body does, conformed to the forms of my knowledge as a spatio-temporal causally passive and active entity, also experiences her body on the inside as will? I cannot know for sure, since I only have access to my own body as will, not to Atma’s experience of her own embodiment. However, when I return home later than expected, Atma’s whines and licks imply that there is some equivalence between my inner experience and her own. When I pick up her lead, or produce a bone, I perceive her body moving and responding in ways that are explicable on the hypothesis that she too experiences herself immediately as will. I have to acknowledge that this could be nothing more than appearance or representation. I could perhaps ask Atma whether she experiences herself as willing; but lacking the power of reason, she has no language and so no power of reflection, so could not answer my query. The only willing being I can know directly is myself.

Am I perhaps the only being in existence, dreaming of an external world of objects, some of which fill me with dread, others great joy, such as my beloved Atma? Schopenhauer dismisses this solipsistic possibility by stating that if taken seriously it would merit confinement in a madhouse rather than a refutation. I have good reason for assuming that the entities outside me, which I experience as representations, also have an inner side comparable with my own inner experience of myself as will: their being and action make greater sense when we entertain the hypothesis that, like me, they are both representation and will. To conclude otherwise would require me to disavow my immediate sympathy with Atma’s perpetual need for comfort, cuddles, attention, food and warmth, and softly-articulated but incomprehensible phrases.

Knowing The World Itself

Having resolved the riddle of my own embodiment as well as that of Atma, perhaps I can press this reasoning further and apply it to other aspects of the world as representation?

Even our own will is generally speaking not rational will, because most of our feelings, yearnings or desires to initiate change are not themselves rational, even if their attempted fulfilment through action will be guided by concepts or maxims which are the products of reason’s power of abstraction. For humans the word ‘will’ usually connotes voluntary action guided by abstract or conceptual motives; but this is merely a local and particular manifestation of willing. If we remove all inessential aspects of the concept of will, so that we are left only with its innermost essence, we might use the word ‘will’ to mean not only the metaphysical inner reality of human and animal bodies, but also that of the organic life of plants and the vital strivings of natural forces in nature, such as gravity. By doing so, we have gained metaphysical knowledge of the inner reality of the world that lights up in our minds as a spatio-temporal world of causally interacting objects. And this indeed is the path of reasoning that Schopenhauer does take, to establish that the inner reality of the whole world of appearances is itself will.

But what is this will apart from how we experience it immediately at the very base of our being, and what does it want?

Schopenhauer thinks that the original datum from which we have unriddled the world – namely our own experience of willing – is so slim that we can say very little else about the will as thing-in-itself, the inner nature of reality, apart from a few reflective deductions that follow necessarily from the little knowledge we have. Initially, since space and time are merely forms of appearance imposed by the intellect on sense data, these forms cannot apply to the metaphysical will. But space and time permit many things to exist: time is the form by which states succeed one another in regular order one after the other, while space is the form by which things exist simultaneously in relation side by side. Remove those forms and there cannot be many things, but only one will, appearing as many things to the intellect. All these many things we experience in the world are therefore manifestations of a hungry and yearning primal unity, which has fragmented itself as a world of plurality in experience in a vain attempt to satisfy itself. When we turn from these metaphysical deductions and take a glance at nature, we see that it is a battleground in which everything seeks to consume other things in the hope of final satiation, but with our knowledge of the inner nature of things we can understand that these contrary and hostile entities and forces are nothing but a reflection of the will itself. This primal will is originally bereft of knowledge, so has no plan or purpose that might guide its striving, beyond perhaps the dull urge to escape the pain that accompanies willing. This purposelessness is bound to affect the beings that are the manifestation of the will in the world of appearance, who endlessly compete with other beings for possession of resources, with no ultimate aim in view but to strive, compete, fight, suffer, and eventually die.

It must have been disturbing for Schopenhauer, and have greatly added to his susceptibility to sorrow, to reflect that his beloved Atma, so contained and graceful in form, eyes so intelligent, affectionate mien, elegantly sculpted muzzle, and neatly-trimmed white (or brown) coat, was something quite different on the inside, apart from his experience of her. Atma, his beloved companion through life, was only poodle as object of perception, appearance; but when he dug down to what she is apart from how she appears, she soul-sinkingly re-emerged as a raging rottweiler, monstrously muscular, howling insatiably, desirous of sinking her teeth into Schopenhauer’s flank.

This transition from Atma as ordered and attractive being to menacing and fiercely uncontrollable animal is precisely the transition that the reader makes from the ordered realm of knowledge found in Book I of The World as Will and Representation to the chaotic realm of metaphysical willing in Book II. As the reader consumes the pages, she realises that not merely Atma, but Schopenhauer too, indeed, the whole world – including the reader – is poodle as representation, rottweiler as will.

© Dr Christopher Ryan 2019

Christopher Ryan is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Education at London Metropolitan University. He is the author of Schopenhauer’s Philosophy of Religion (Peeters, Leuven, 2010).

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