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The World as Will and Representation
Arthur Schopenhauer
Translated by E. F. J. Payne

F or some cheerful and uplifting Christmas reading this year, I recommend the two-volume, 1300-page philosophical work The World as Will and Representation by Arthur Schopenhauer.

This book can be read as one of the early outpourings of Hinduism into the West, or as a defense of Kant, or as a highly entertaining (and well deserved) denunciation of Hegel. Schopenhauer says that we cannot know the world directly, but only indirectly from its representation created from sense data by the mind. This idea, which is generally accepted by cognitive psychologists today, borrows heavily from Buddhist and Hinduist philosophers, who taught that we only perceive an image of the world projected by our own minds. Therefore, Schopenhauer argues, both the object and the subject must really exist. This point of view is not really idealism, as is sometimes claimed, but a premonition of 20th-century psychology. Indeed, Sigmund Freud was heavily influenced by his work.

Schopenhauer also adopts the central tenet of Buddhism, which is that life is suffering. Suffering, and the need to reduce it, provide the driving force that keeps us alive. The will to live, or "will," is what distinguishes subject from object. Only the subject has a will. The subject acts not on the world, but on the world as it is represented in his or her own mind. Will is a natural law, he says, like gravity, which does not care about the goal, only about the process; or like electricity, which ceases to exist when it stops. To achieve the goal would be to die. Our will is the process of striving to overcome obstacles. The basis of will is need and pain: in this sense, all life is suffering [p.310]. Pain is essential to life [p.315].

It is somewhat unfair to characterize this as pessimism: science tells us that life is a dynamic process. Biochemical reactions seek equilibrium, but they reach it only in death. The will to live has its physiological basis in the need to escape from suffering. Even Nietzsche defended Schopenhauer on this point, saying, in effect, if it is true that life sucks then we die (which is as good a synopsis of Schopenhauer as any), we ought to be strong and embrace that.

Schopenhauer is sometimes overlooked today, probably because philosophy today thrives on transgressiveness and obscurity. Speak clearly and your work is considered trivial. Start finding answers, and you are taken outside and sternly pointed toward the Science building. But also, the strong influence of Eastern mysticism in his work distances Schopenhauer from the path of Western philosophy.

Volume One is divided into four Books: The World as Representation I, The World as Will I, The World as Representation II, and The World as Will II. Volume Two, although much longer, contains ... um ... more stuff. Unlike his mentor Kant, whose sentences sometimes extend to two or more pages, Schopenhauer's writing is plain enough. He abjures pomposity and technical language, and his style is self-effacing, but typical of early 19th century writing: verbose and time-consuming to read, and, especially in the first two books, undisciplined, with seemingly endless, irrelevant tangents. If you're on death row (and, really, aren't we all), this is the ideal book to keep the executioners at bay. If you read both volumes, you will know the true meaning of pain. Dropping them on your foot will have the same effect. But if it's true pain you're after, you will have to look to 20th century philosophers like Wittgenstein.

nov 25, 2012





Introduction to Metaphysics
Martin Heidegger
Translated by G. Fried & R. Polt

L ast week my dentist told me, if I remember it correctly, that I need to philosophize more. So I ran out and got a copy of Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics. This is the book Heidegger himself recommended before starting his masterwork Being and Time. It does help, but I must say I am still getting a little plaque. Maybe I am using it wrong.

In this nicely-translated book, Heidegger asks the question "Why is there something instead of nothing?" Despite his brilliance, in this book he gives the impression that he has absolutely no idea how to proceed once this basic and important question has been asked. Heidegger has found the door, and keeps rattling on the doorknob, but cannot get in. In fact, he didn't have a chance, because it is really not a philosophical question at all.

dec 03, 2012

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Short philosophy books