Schopenhauer’s Aesthetic System

Schopenhauer attempts to provide us with an explanation of ourselves and our place in the world, and how we should act in response to that world in order to escape its inherent suffering. But I feel that his description of the world and his prescription for living in it are conflicting and misguided. I have serious doubts about several parts of Schopenhauer’s philosophy. For example, his ontological stance (a universal will shared among all sentient beings) is questionable as well as its phenomenological and existential implications. But primarily, I’m interested in the advice that Schopenhauer gives us for living in this world of suffering (or “non-living” as it seems to me).

In my understanding, Schopenhauer says that an individual is, at his core, a will. This will it seems is the blind desire for life, the yearning to exist and continue to exist. For the will to exist it must communicate with the individual’s “reason”, the intellectual aspect of the individual, which can lead the will to the water of life to drink. The problem is that the language used by the will to communicate is that of pain and suffering. The will perceives a lack of something and immediately says to reason, “Here is pain. It is from a want. Fill this void”. And then reason goes on to do so, (consciously or unconsciously) creating a temporary relief of suffering for the will. Schopenhauer then goes on to say that because this is temporary the will must always swing between the suffering and the absence of suffering; “its life swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents.”

And so, Schopenhauer’s ontology tells us that life is basically suffering. He moves from this assertion to a prescription about how one may escape this suffering via art, that great mystical savior. He says, “What might otherwise be called the finest part of life, its purest joy, just because it lifts us out of real existence, and transforms us into disinterested spectators of it, is pure knowledge which remains foreign to all willing, pleasure in the beautiful, genuine delight in art” (italics mine; [1]). I have several problems with this. First, why should we even consider escaping this type of life (real existence)? And furthermore, if we deny suffering are we denying life?

Dealing with the first question, “Why should we consider escaping this life”, I feel that we’re dealing with phenomenological, existentialist, and ontological issues. Phenomenologically, It seems very difficult to accurately describe life from one perspective, analyze another’s life, and declare one better that the other. I think Schopenhauer attempts to answer this by declaring that we all share the will as a universal. It allows us to be bound to each other and to execute comparisons among all sentient beings. But I feel that he has no way of verifying this. If he’s right then he’s right, but if he’s wrong then he only believes that he is right and is misguided by his subjective approach.

Ontologically, it seems Schopenhauer is trying to get us to transcend above this existence, but I’m not sure if there is anything to transcend to. What completely baffles me about his philosophy is that he even says that the world of suffering is the “real existence”, and yet he wants us to escape from it to some purported “higher” realm of existence. He believes that art can liberate us; “it lifts us out of real existence”; “when we enter the state of pure contemplation [of art], we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves” [1].

So, it seems that by viewing a proper work of art we are supposed to be lifted out of this harsh existence in order to know the “true nature of life and of existence”. But I just don’t see how it’s possible to differentiate between the “real” existence and the “true” existence. I think Schopenhauer is trying to posit some ethereal world which is not the true world, but a romanticized and falsified version of this one, which really gets us no further in the end. We have gained nothing from looking toward the sky as Plato did. We need to bring it back down to the dirt and soil and earth as Aristotle recommended; we need to just look around and observe the suffering. This brings us to the existentialist point of view.

I feel that a great many existentialists would be upset with Schopenhauer’s generalization, for he is in fact declaring that (1) there is something else besides this world and this suffering and (2) “essence precedes existence” and not the contrary.

We saw evidence for (1) earlier in his admonition to rise above the suffering via art and we see evidence for (2) in his theory of the will as universal. According to this theory “the will, considered purely in itself, is devoid of knowledge, and is only a blind, irresistible urge, as we see it appear in inorganic and vegetable nature and in their laws, and also in the vegetative part of our own life…It always strives because striving is its sole nature, to which no attained goal can put an end”. Here Schopenhauer is clearly stating what the will is, in the positive. He is, in effect, giving a definition (the same definition at core) to man and animals and plants and all that live.

This is in direct contradiction to most existentialist thought. A basic tenet of existentialism is that man has no universal definition. Each man and woman decides for himself and herself what they are and are to become, if they so choose. For them, existence precedes essence; universal definition does not precede them. To sum it up (if possible), existentialism is a “philosophical movement that emphasizes the individual, the self, the individual’s experience, and the uniqueness therein as the only reality. Existentialists believe in sheer freedom and accept the consequences and ramifications of their actions wholly. Existentialists prefer subjectivity, and view general existence as arcane, that they are isolated entities in an indifferent and often ambiguous universe.” [2]

Secondly, it seems absurd to lump people and other animals together when talking about the striving will and the suffering it entails. Though, to his credit Schopenhauer does say that “the more complicated the organization becomes in the ascending series of animals, the more manifolod do its needs become, and the more varied and specially determined the objects capable of satisfying them, consequently the more torturous and lengthy the paths for arriving at these…” [1]. So he is saying that the suffering an animal feels is not quite that of modern man, but yet they do share some suffering in that both of their attempts to live are stifled at some point. But I think the existentialists would say that they are nearly beyond comparison and by unifying them via the will Schopenhauer is mistaken.

Though Schopenhauer does seem to have many differences with thinkers like Nietzsche, there are some similarities. For example, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche both view human evolution as an artistic process. Nietzsche, the theorist of the will to power, understands evolutionary history as one aspect of a universal, cosmic becoming, as the unfolding of certain creative forces immanent in nature. The same is true of the young Schopenhauer, metaphysician of The Birth of Tragedy, for whom ‘art’ designates not only a mode of human activity or its artifacts, but also a universal, supra-individual phenomenon (Moore, 7).

Consequently, their worldviews could even be constructed in similar manners. For Nietzsche the world – that is, the world of appearance, the world as ‘representation’ in Schopenhauer’s sense – is itself a work of art, one fashioned by a cosmic process represented by his famous distinction between the Apollonian and Dionysian.

Other similarities can be seen deeper in the ideas of the two philosophers. Nietzsche’s idea of the Kunsttrieb, or pseudo-sexual force that prompts one to recreate himself in a work of art has a parallel in Schopenhauer. On the basis of his concept of the Kunsttrieb, Nietzsche establishes a hierarchy, graded according to the various levels of its objectification in nature, in much the same way as Schopenhauer orders the natural world according to the progressively more ‘adequate’ objectification of the Will. Organisms are deemed ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ according to their ‘artistic’ capacities or their sufficiency as media for the expression of the Kunsttrieb. Human beings, of course, represent the highest level of objectification. Nietzsche writes, “The awakening of the Kunsttrieb differentiates the animals. That we see nature in a particular way, in a particularly artistic way – this we share with no other living thing. But there is also an artistic gradation of the animals” [3]. This seems very similar to what Schopenhauer is saying when he talks of the Will in association with animals: “The difference of its [Will] manifestations in the various species of animal beings depends on the different extension of their spheres of knowledge in which the motives of those manifestations are to be found” [1].

But while Nietzsche shared some of the same philosophical ideas as Schopenhauer, he was also trying to break away. In the ‘Attempt at Self-

Criticism’ which prefaced the second edition of The Birth of Tragedy in 1886, he lamented the fact that he had labored “to express strange and new evaluations in Schopenhauerian…formulations, things which fundamentally ran counter to both the spirit and taste of…Schopenhauer” (Moore, 8). And so he felt the need to clarify his views, criticizing Schopenhauer and the Kantian process that was used in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Nietzsche felt that in the aesthetic state the organism experiences an irresistible feeling of superabundant energy which must be discharged and channeled into creativity. In this, it resembles – or rather, is actually a species of – sexual arousal. This conception of aesthetic pleasure Nietzsche explicitly develops in opposition to the Kantian model of pleasure. Kant argues that the aesthetic attitude involves detachment from appetitive behavior, from purposiveness, and above all from sexuality.

For Nietzsche, on the other hand, the work of art, like the object of sexual attraction, actually stimulates desire. It is impossible (at least for a male, heterosexual viewer) to gaze at a female nude without interest. His real target here, however, is not so much Kant as Schopenhauer, who, as he correctly observes, appropriated the Kantian version of the aesthetic problem, although he certainly did not view it through Kantian eyes. Though Kant holds that disinterestedness is a necessary condition for aesthetic pleasure, it is not its end. The object in which we take pleasure is a kind of ‘free’ orderliness, the kind of orderliness we recognize in an object of perception when we bring it under a concept but which, in the case of the beautiful, is perceived without categorizing it in this way. For Schopenhauer, however, the object of pleasure is one’s own state of disinterestedness: the pleasure gained from a temporary release from the blind urging of the will, the celebration of the ‘Sabbath after the hard labor of desire’. As a means of restraining the human being’s sexual interest, art thus gestures towards the ethic of self-denial which he advocates.

This model of aesthetic experience as disinterested contemplation is, however, self-defeating, Nietzsche contends, because art remains enmeshed within the economy of means and ends: the momentary state of serene detachment is for Schopenhauer itself an object of desire, something which he desperately craved in order to deliver him from the tyranny of his own sexuality. Repudiating the Kantian-Schopenhauerian conception of aesthetic experience, Nietzsche embraces instead the view of Stendhal, ‘a no-less sensual but more happily constituted nature than Schopenhauer’, whose equally famous description of beauty as ‘a promise of happiness’ he makes his own, interpreting it in the more narrow sense as the promise of sexual pleasure, as a means to arouse the will.

In Twilight of the Idols, he again attacks Schopenhauer for mistakenly seeing in beauty the means of denying the ‘procreative drive’. This claim, he declares, is contradicted by nature: ‘Why is there any beauty in sound, colour, fragrance, rhythmic movements in nature? What is it that forces out beauty?’ He answers these questions this time by quoting Plato, who, in The Symposium, argues that ‘all beauty stimulates procreation’ (p. 54). Backed up by the authority of Stendhal and Plato, Nietzsche thus finally breaks with Schopenhauer, creating a line of demarcation between the two philosophies (Moore, 14-15).

Beginning on a new topic, another great problem I have with Schopenhauer is the means of his “escape”. If indeed his prescribed escape is justified, is art the proper medium through which to make the escape? Why is it seen as a higher, more transcendental approach when other things may work just as well?

For example, the criterion for a great work of art is that it must be capable of “lifting us out of real existence” and that when we “enter the state of pure contemplation [of it], we are…for the moment rid of ourselves.” But if I can find this same effect elsewhere it stands to reason I don’t need art. Drugs, for example, lift a person out of real existence. LSD can create entirely new visual objects for a person and allow one to enter into a new state of consciousness. Is this to be revered as another savior? Harvard educated Dr. Timothy Leary thought it could. What about games or sex or food or anything else that allows us to escape from suffering.

It seems that the swing from boredom to pain that Schopenhauer talks of is no different from the aesthetic swing of true perception to entanglement in suffering. To invoke again existentialist thought, Schopenhauer’s enjoyment of fine art may be no different than someone’s enjoyment of a Big Mac or one’s occasional need for a pint of vodka.

Works Cited:

[1]: Schopenhauer quote handout


[3]: Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense”. Cambridge, 2002.

[4]: Moore, Gregory. “Art and Evolution: Nietzsche’s Physiological Aesthetics.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 10(1) 2002: 109-126. May 4, 2005.

4 thoughts on “Schopenhauer’s Aesthetic System

  1. Some interesting points here, but I’m wondering if you have ever actually
    had the kind of aesthetic experience that Schopenhauer talks about.
    It’s not just some philosophical theory. It does actually transcend will.
    Whereas eating a big Mac or getting stoned is entirely about WILL.
    The asesthetic experience is not something you can take. It is grace.

  2. You haven’t read “The world as will and representation” right?
    Not saying you are not on the right track, but you aren’t quite able to understand what Schopenhauer meant imo.

    1. I second this. The essay here pretty much begins to unravel at this point: “a universal will shared among all sentient beings.” Even a cursory reading of WWR shows that this is clearly not what Schopenhauer means by will.

  3. Schopenhauer unlike many other philosophers, had lots of contact with the East. His philosophy is highly experiential, and life probably needs to have driven you to the cistern from which he drank in other to dislocate his teachings from theory!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *