Let’s start with Immanuel Kant‘s claim that there are two worlds – a phenomenal world and a noumenal world. The phenomenal is the world as we experience it, generated by the way our brain makes sense of the world, by means of our basic understanding of concepts like causality, space and time. The noumenal is the world of the things (plural) in themselves, the things that lie behind and outside of our experience and cause (trigger) our phenomenal experience of them, a world that is not subjected to our categories of understanding, but is “in itself”. For Kant it was obvious that we have access to the phenomenal world (we create this world in our own minds), but we cannot have access to the noumenal world. That noumenal world exists outside of us, independent of us.
Arthur Schopenhauer ( † 1860 ) disagreed. While we may not know or understand the noumenal world, we are very much subjected to its “force”. It is true that our phenomenal world is made up of our interpretations, ideas and knowledge, but these are nothing more than our representations of what lies underneath, outside of our rational minds and knowledge: the Will.
The Will is a will to be, to live, to survive, in its most fundamental, raw and basic sense. It does not belong to our phenomenal world, so we have no way of accessing it directly, or of knowing and understanding it. The Will is not subjected to concepts of time, space and causality. It is the human cognitive mind that adds space, time and causality to our experience of the noumenal world, as Kant had demonstrated. So the Will is singular, undifferentiated, one totality, which our cognitive minds break up in separate experiences, or representations, or ideas.
The Will is a blind force, a constant drive. We may not be able to access the Will with our rational minds, but the Will powers everything we do. Our desires and ideas are representations we make in our minds of the Will. The Will powers everything we think and do, and not in a good way. Because the Will can never be satisfied, it causes a permanent sense of incompleteness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, misery and suffering.
If you stopped reading here, you would be forgiven for thinking that Schopenhauer was a miserable pessimist. What a terrible thing to realise. We are doomed to suffer, because we live in a world that makes it impossible for us to ever find serenity and contentment. But Schopenhauer offered a way out – again, showing clear similarities with the Buddhist teachings. First of all, we can try to deny our desires and temptations. By denying the representations we make in our minds of the Will, we deny the Will itself, and weaken its power over us. But that may not be for everyone – not everyone is capable of living a life of asceticism. Secondly, Schopenhauer suggests that we all practise compassion for other people and animals(!) We’re all in the same boat, so why not try to sympathise with one another’s fate. Thirdly, art is the best way to get in touch with that universal suffering. Who else represents the universal suffering better than musicians, painters and actors?
Schoperhauer’s influence was enormous. It is said that Freud was inspired by Schopenhauer’s Will to posit the sexual libido and unconscious motivation as the basis of human behaviour, while Darwin may have been inspired by the idea of “blind force” to explain the evolutionary drive of species. Schopenhauer was the first European philosopher to draw on Indian philosophy – it is said that he was well acquainted with the Upanishads’ concepts of moksha (liberation) and samsara (suffering). Nietzsche elevated the Will to a raw life force, which he placed at the centre of his ethical theory. Contrary to Schopenhauer however, Nietzsche claimed that this life force should never be denied – denying the Will is part of slave morality, a sign a weakness.