The world as will or metaphor

In the “World as Will and Idea,” Arthur Schopenhauer unleashes the Will. That is, he elaborates a narrative and analysis of what the universe must look like if we set aside rationalist and moralistic preconditions for our understanding of it, and simply let it be what it is and do what it does. But it turns out this ‘doing’ is its being’ – that is, the universe is nothing at all but the actions and events that happen in it. It thus can be conceived as the movement itself, and among living beings, motivation itself, which then can be referred to as “Will” – the compelling force underlying all action. But is this really the case? Or are we witnessing an intended mythic ‘AS IF,’ a thought experiment carried to its furthest extent?

Schopenhauer is the first Western thinker to understand Eastern philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the first to think they had insights to offer the West. Will, and our possible responses to it, is the chief of these.

It should be noted that prior to Schopenhauer, Will has a special two-fold function in German philosophy. It is the articulation of the deepest motivation of all human action – desire – and the instrument of action that needs rational clarification and training for moral purposes. This leads to an odd formula we first find in Kant, that the Will, in order to be free (without which moral responsibility cannot be assumed), must be constrained by rationally derived moral principles (the foundation of de-ontological ethics). The Will is thus trapped in its freedom.

Schopenhauer is basically saying that this formula is metaphysically ungrounded. It assumes, for instance, that morals can be determined prior to any action, which makes no sense, since we are engaged in action long before we think through the morality of it. Since action precedes thought, it follows that Will functions without constraint – rationality thus is always in service of the Will, not the other way around. However, in yet another paradox, we can through reason quiet the Will and observe its cause and effects without engagement. As Heidegger (who didn’t like Schopenhauer, but who was led to much the same conclusions in his post-War thought), we can learn to ‘will not to will.’ (In Buddhism this leads to the Eightfold Path, and meditations directed toward release from the self.)

The reason we might want to do this is that if we see individual beings as mere incidence of the ontological imperative of Will, then these individuals are basically thrust around as puppets, causing themselves all kinds of suffering while deluding them into believing that they are actually doing something. (This is a fundamental principle of certain Hindu sects and of traditional Buddhism – desire itself creates the sense of ‘self’ which then believes ‘I am satisfying my own desires,’ when it’s only desire satisfying itself.)

For Schopenhauer, this indicates that Will itself can be conceived as a metaphysical agency, but only as a blind force – it originates as the tendency toward motion and the coming together and dissolution that are the recurrent processes of the universe, and finally realizes itself in living entities capable of consciously enacting its imperatives. One can see it in this way: There is a tendency of atoms to come together in molecules, and then to break away to join with other atoms in differing combinations. But of course they have no sense of this. Once life comes to be, we effectively have molecules seeking other molecules by sense, intentionally to achieve union, breaking up other molecules intentionally to destroy and consume. (This ‘intentionality’ is not the will of the organism, but of Will per se.) Schopenhauer sees the the metaphysical Will as a motivating principle rather than a conscious entity. It is to some extent the principle of causation itself as an active force, rather than mechanism dependent on inertial changes.

One of the problems with “World as Will and Idea” is that it’s not at all clear how much of this Schopenhauer holds to be literally true, and how much he is working as a trope – a model in competition with the agent-‘Consciousness’ of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel (whom he absolutely hated). Schopenhauer’s favored predecessors were Hume and Kant; and his other writings are very clear and precise, yet he allows himself considerable flourish in “Will and Idea.” The benefit of such an extended trope is that it re-configures the frame through which we interpret experience. What happens has no design to it, no purpose; it is simply the causative forces of the universe enacting their inevitable processes; and this is true of lived experience as much as what we observe in the sciences.

Generally then, “World as Will and Idea” is best used as an epistemological tool. We actually don’t need to assume that there is any such entity or force as the metaphysical Will external to us, but rather adopt t as metaphor to guide how we interpret our experience, and as caution against assuming that all that we know through reason can be trusted as detached and unmotivated. The Will is always at work, even in the driest bits of data and any uses we might make of them.


This was written as reply to a post by Makagutu at:

I should admit that I have not read Schopenhauer for quite some time, so my discussion is certainly open to correction.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s