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Schopenhauer's Proof that Thing-in-ltself is Will

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Dale Jacquette
The Pennsylvania State University


In a bold series of pronouncements, Arthur Schopenhauer maintains that the Kantian thing-in-itself is Will. The division between the world as Will and representation, with its impressive array of implications, is Schopenhauer's most important and distinctive contribution to metaphysics. To understand what Schopenhauer means by ‘Will’ (der Wille) as opposed to the empirical ‘will’, and his reasons for identifying thing-in-itself with Will, we must look in detail at two related arguments by which Schopenhauer proposes to link these concepts. The arguments appear in the first and second editions of Schopenhauer's masterwork, The World as Will and Representation. The differences between the two versions appear to represent a change in his thinking about the most persuasive way to demonstrate the nature of thing-in-itself. The arguments are reconstructed for the sake of comparison, and critically evaluated in light of a variety of objections. While Schopenhauer's first, analogical, argument is inconclusive, his second argument offers a highly defensible inference identifying thing-in-itself as Will.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2007

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1 I find it more natural to speak of Kant's Ding an sich as thing-in-itself, rather than as the thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer holds that thing-in-itself is one, which recommends the definite article, but he also maintains that thing-in-itself is not subject to the principle of individuation or principium individuationis. Accordingly, I prefer to remain as neutral as possible with respect to its numerical uniqueness. Schopenhauer's usage in this regard is not entirely consistent. He generally includes the definite article, ‘das Ding an sich’, as Richard Aquila informs me in private correspondence, but typically omits it in the phrase ‘als Ding an sich’; he nevertheless inserts the article in ‘als das Ding an sich’ twice in the second volume of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Chapter 19, and three times in Über den Willen in der Natur: Eine Erörterung der Bestätigungen, welche die Philosophie des Verfassers, seit ihrem Auftreten, durch die empirischen Wissenschaften erhalten hat. I follow the same practice, more consistently in keeping with Schopenhauer's own preference, with respect to the article-less numerical neutrality of Will rather than the Will identified as thing-in-itself. Schopenhauer's most prolific English translator, E.F.J. Payne, on whose texts I rely in the present context, as a rule renders Schopenhauer's terminology with the definite article as ‘the will’, rather than simply as ‘will’. See Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation (hereafter, WWR, 1, 2) (New York: Dover Publications, 1966)Google Scholar, two vols. I go beyond Payne in another way, by distinguishing typographically, in the service, hopefully, of greater philosophical clarity, between the individual, phenomenal or empirical will and Will as thing-in-itself. Payne renders both with the lower-case ‘will’, which in a way is more faithful to their orthographic indistinguishability in Schopenhauer's German, in which all nouns are capitalized.

2 There are logical and mathematical aspects of the empirical world, according to Schopenhauer, and by describing the world as representation also as empirical, I do not mean to preclude these important formal roots of the principle of sufficient reason. Even the most extreme empiricists, prominently including George Berkeley and David Hume, among others, do not preclude the use of logic and mathematics, despite championing the view that experience is sovereign in philosophy and the natural sciences.

3 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Smith, Norman Kemp, trans. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965)Google Scholar, A 19-B 73; on thing-in-itself, see B 67–8 and passim. Bryan Magee does not seem to understand that Schopenhauer deliberately avoids speaking of thing-in-itself as noumenon or noumenal. See Magee, , The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1983Google Scholar; revised and enlarged edition 1997), especially pp. 96, 210–11.

4 See Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation (hereafter, WWR), two vols., Payne, E. F. J., trans. (New York: Dover Publications, 1966)Google Scholar, two vols., especially his Appendix to vol. 1, ‘Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy’, WWR, 1, 469–70, 474–6.

5 Schopenhauer insists that we cannot possibly arrive at an ‘exhaustive and adequate’ knowledge of thing-in-itself on the grounds that such knowledge is ‘tied to the form of representation’. See WWR, 2, 196–7; also, Schopenhauer, , Parerga and Paralipomena (PP), new edition, Payne, E. F. J., trans. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)Google Scholar, two vols., PP, 2, 92–4.

6 Elsewhere, Schopenhauer distinguishes between individual subjects and the ‘pure’ or universal subject of which individuals are mere ‘bearers’. See, for example, WWR, 1, 197–8, where Schopenhauer refers metaphorically to ‘the one eye that looks out from all subjects’.

7 Atwell, John E., Schopenhauer on the Character of the World: The Metaphysics of Will (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 86.Google Scholar

8 Ibid., p. 88. Note that I adopt Schopenhauer's elisions in speaking relatively freely of (individual phenomenal) ‘will’ in nominalized fashion as equivalent to willing in gerundival form. Schopenhauer in this way tends to treat the (individual phenomenon) will as the agency within the world as representation that is causally responsible for individual episodic acts of willing within the world as representation, as when we say colloquially of a person with strong determination that he or she has an iron will. Needless to say, and for reasons Schopenhauer makes abundantly clear, the Will as thing-in-itself is not causally involved in any of its objectifications or manifestations. It is worthwhile in some contexts, especially when considering and in developing the most charitable readings of what I take to be Schopenhauer's first-edition analogical argument for the identification of thing-in-itself as Will to follow his lead in speaking of will and Will as entities. This is not meant to preclude proper acknowledgement also when appropriate that the individual phenomenal will is encountered only in, and may ultimately be only an elliptical way of referring to, a subject's individual phenomenal episodic acts of willing.

9 Ibid., p. 87.

10 Ibid., p. 88.

11 Janaway, Christopher, ‘Will and Nature’, in Janaway, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 145–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Ibid., pp. 146–7.

13 See also Janaway, , Self and World in Schopenhauer's Philosophy (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 191207Google Scholar. On pp. 202–3, Janaway writes: ‘The phenomena of conscious willing are those of which we have direct inner cognition and which alert us to the inadequacy of the subject/object model provided by the doctrine of representation. In honour of this special status, whatever lies behind the veil of representation is to be called “will”, even though the majority of its manifestations are not instances of conscious willing at all. A great many are teleologically explicable, however, and may be thought of in terms of a kind of unconscious “striving” whose end is the propagation and maintenance of life. Others are merely the action of one thing upon another. All are manifestations of the same thing in itself that manifests itself in us as conscious willing. Admittedly, this argument leaves the term “will” fairly vacuous in its application to the thing in itself. But it is important to see that Schopenhauer is not anthropomorphizing nature.’

14 Here we take note of Schopenhauer's distinction between inner and outer perception (innere, äussere Wahrnehmung). By referring specifically to sensation or sense perception we designate external ways of knowing the body as distinct from inner knowledge of will-driven action and movement.

15 WWR, 1, 101–2: ‘Finally, the knowledge I have of my will, although an immediate knowledge, cannot be separated from that of my body. I know my will not as a whole, not as a unity, not completely according to its nature, but only in its individual acts, and hence in time, which is the form of the body's appearing, as it is of every body. Therefore, the body is the condition of knowledge of my will. Accordingly, I cannot really imagine this will without my body.’ See also WWR, 2, 196–7: ‘Meanwhile it is to be carefully noted, and I have always kept it in mind, that even the inward observation we have of our own will still does not by any means furnish an exhaustive and adequate knowledge of the thing-in-itself… In the first place, such knowledge is tied to the form of the representation; it is perception or observation, and as such falls apart into subject and object… Hence even in inner knowledge there still occurs a difference between the being-in-itself of its object and the observation or perception of this object in the knowing subject.’ The point is that thing-in-itself is not directly encountered in introspection of any act of phenomenal willing. The inner sense of phenomenal willing provides only the starting place for inquiry, from which it is necessary to arrive at an intuitive grasp and theoretical understanding of thing-in-itself as pure willing or Will only by a process of abstraction. We think away the cause, motivation, object and subject of phenomenal willing to arrive at something that on reflection is understood as not governed by the principles of individuation and sufficient reason.

16 Schopenhauer's otherwise unsupported assumption of the analogy between the inner nature of things as will-like and ultimately as Will is evident in the following passages. WWR, 1, 105: ‘As we proceed, we shall see that this belongs not to the inner nature of the will, but merely to its most distinct phenomena as animal and human being. Therefore, if I say that the force which attracts a stone to the earth is of its nature, in itself, and apart from all representation, will, then no one will attach to this proposition the absurd meaning that the stone moves itself according to a known motive, because it is thus that the will appears in man.’ WWR, 1,107: ‘Now if every action of my body is an appearance or phenomenon of an act of will in which my will itself in general and as a whole, and hence my character, again expresses itself under given motives, then phenomenon or appearance of the will must also be the indispensable condition and presupposition of every action. For the will's appearance cannot depend on something which does not exist directly and only through it, and would therefore be merely accidental for it, whereby the will's appearance itself would be only accidental. But that condition is the whole body itself. Therefore this body itself must be phenomenon of the will, and must be related to my will as a whole, that is to say, to my intelligible character, the phenomenon of which in time is my empirical character, in the same way as the particular action of the body is to the particular act of the will. Therefore the whole body must be nothing but my will become visible, must be my will itself, in so far as this is object of perception, representation of the first class.’

17 WWR, 1, Appendix: Criticism of the Kantian Philosophy, p. 422: ‘[Kant] did not deduce the thing-in-itself in the right way, as I shall soon show, but by means of an inconsistency; and he had to pay the penalty for this in the frequent and irresistible attacks on this principal part of his teaching. He did not recognize the thing-in-itself directly in the will, but made a great and original step towards this knowledge, since he demonstrated the undeniable moral significance of human conduct to be quite different from, and not dependent on, the laws of the phenomenon, to be not even capable of explanation according to them, but to be something directly touching the thing-in-itself.’ Ibid., p. 437: ‘I now return to Kant's great mistake, already touched on above, namely that he did not properly separate knowledge of perception from abstract knowledge; from this there arose a terrible confusion which we have now to consider more closely. If he had sharply separated representations of perception from concepts thought merely in abstracto, he would have kept these two apart, and would have known with which of the two he had to deal in each case.’

18 WWR, 1, 82. Janaway, ‘Will and Nature’, in Janaway, (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Schopenhauer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 138–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Kelly, Michael, Kant's Philosophy as Rectified by Schopenhauer (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1909).Google Scholar

19 See final comment in note 1 above.

20 WWR, 1, 164–5.

21 WWR, 1, 162: ‘Thus everyone in this twofold regard is the whole world itself, the microcosm; he finds its two sides whole and complete within himself. And what he thus recognizes as his own inner being also exhausts the inner being of the whole world, of the macrocosm. Thus the whole world, like man himself, is through and through will and through and through representation, and beyond this there is nothing.’

22 I am grateful to Richard Aquila and an anonymous journal referee for useful comments and criticisms leading to many improvements in my exposition. This research was supported in part by a Research Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS), Royal Academy of the Arts and Sciences (KNAW) in 2005–6.