Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Confusion

I’m confused. I thought Schopenhauer was saying one thing for a while, and then later it seems as if he’s saying just the opposite. I reached the part in my reader in which the philosopher explains the view behind the title of his most famous work, The World as Will and Representation, and all seemed clear and interesting. Kant, he reminds the reader, says that space, time, causality, and several other concepts we naturally ascribe to the natural world around us can truthfully only be traced reliably to our own perceptions. What we think of as the world is only a Representation. Of what things are in themselves – whether they exist in cause-effect relationship, for instance – we have no idea.

But, Schopenhauer says, we each actually do have a glimpse into the true essence of one object that reaches our senses: our bodies. And the true essence of my body is the Will. When I will my arm to move, I see and feel it move. When I see something touch my skin, I have an experience of pleasure or of pain depending on whether the sensation agrees or disagrees with my will, in other words, with how I wish my skin to feel. Because my body is the perceive correlative of my will, I should assume that Will is the true essence behind everything else I see, touch, hear, taste, and smell. The growing trees, towering mountains, crashing waves, and on and on – all are manifestations, representations of a universal Will. The person of true genius can rise above perception of the world as Representation to pure contemplation of this world-in-itself, the essence of the world, the world as Will. In pure contemplation, the Will within sees the Will without; it is Will knowing itself.

OK, admittedly not everything is clear to me even at this point. Schopenhauer says that pure contemplation makes the genius a “pure, will-less subject of knowledge.” The “ordinary” person, he says, only sees the world in relation to how it can serve personal desires; the genius observing the essence of the world purely, on the other hand, doesn’t seek self-gratification. So is “pure contemplation” the act of Will observing itself or of a will-less genius?

But even greater confusion comes a few chapters later in the anthology. There, Schopenhauer says that the genius can become pure knower at a single glimpse of nature, abstracted from all change. “Then the world as representation alone remains; the world as will has disappeared.” What happened to seeing the world in its true essence? Does the genius see Will or Representation? To be fair, Schopenhauer says here that the truth can only be told in paradoxical terms, although he doesn’t address, as far as I can see, the particular paradox of pure contemplation being both a view of the world as will and a view of the world as representation alone. And maybe Schopenhauer means that I must understand that Will is the essence of the world in order then to block it out and see the world only as its image in my head. And maybe he reaches his culminating point when he says that nature wants (i.e., wills) itself to be seen only as representation. Maybe it all makes sense somehow. But when I got to this point in the book, I couldn’t help thinking about the passage in The Principles of Psychology I read last year in which James says that some philosophers talk around and around vague ideas without successfully expressing them while sounding intelligent only because they use consistent terminology and normal rules of grammar.

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