The World as Will and DesignJune 26, 2021
Life is full of pain and it would be better not to have been born at all.
Few people take such a pessimistic view, but Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was one. According to him, we were all in a vicious circle constantly wanting something, getting them, and then starting to want other things. This situation would not end until he died. When we seemed to get what we wanted, we began to want something else. You may think you would be happy if you were a millionaire, but that happiness doesn’t last long either. You want something else you don’t have.
Humans are like that. We are never satisfied, we never stop yearning for more than what we have. All this is pretty depressing. Nevertheless, Schopenhauer’s philosophy is not as obscure as this suggests. He thinks that if we could understand the true nature of reality, we would act very differently, that we could get rid of some unpleasant aspects of being human. His message was very close to Buddha’s. Buddha thought that all life is full of suffering, but there is no such thing as “I” on a deeper level: If we understand this, we can experience enlightenment. The similarity was not accidental. Unlike most Western philosophers, Schopenhauer had studied Eastern philosophy in depth. There was even a statue of Buddha on his desk, next to the statuette of Immanuel Kant, one of the philosophers who influenced him the most.
Unlike Buddha and Kant, Schopenhauer was a gloomy, difficult and arrogant man. When he got a job as a teacher in Berlin, he was so confident in his genius that he insisted that his lectures be at exactly the same time as Hegel’s. This was not a good idea at all, since Hegel was so well-liked by students that very few people attended Schopenhauer’s lectures. Schopenhauer later dropped out of university and spent the rest of his life on the money he inherited.
His most important book “The World as Will and Design” was first published in 1818; but continue to work on the work for years. He produced a much longer version in 1844. The basic idea at the center of his work is quite simple. Reality has two sides. Reality exists as both Will and Design. The will is a blind driving force that is absolutely present in everything that exists. It is the energy that makes plants and animals grow; it is also the force that causes magnets to point north or to form crystals in chemical compounds. It is present in every part of nature. The other side, the world as design, is the world as we experience it.
The world as design is a construction of reality that we construct in our minds. This is what Kant calls the phenomenal world. Take a look around. You probably see trees, people, or cars through the window, or this book in front of you. Perhaps you can hear birds, traffic, or noises from another room. What you experience through your senses is the world as design. This is how you give meaning to everything, and it requires your consciousness. Your mind organizes your experience to make sense of it all.
The World as Design is the world we live in. However, like Kant, Schopenhauer believed that there was a deeper reality beyond our experience, beyond the world of appearances. Kant called this the noumenal world, and he thought we had no direct access to this world. For Schopenhauer, the World-as-will was somewhat similar to Kant’s noumenal world, but there were nevertheless important differences. Kant wrote about noumena, the plural of noumenon. He thought there could be more than one part of reality. How Kant knew this is not clear; especially considering it says the noumenal world is out of reach. Schopenhauer, by contrast, thought that we cannot assume that noumenal reality is divided; because space and time were necessary for such a division. According to Kant, space and time existed with the contribution of the individual mind rather than existing in reality.
Instead, Schopenhauer defined the Earth as Will as a single, unified, directionless force behind everything that happens. As will, we can glimpse this World through our own actions and experience of art. Stop reading this book and put your hands on your head. What happened? Anyone watching will only see your hands lifted up and resting on your head. If you look in the mirror you can see it too.
It is a description of the phenomenal world, the World as Representation. For Schopenhauer though, our experience of moving our body has an internal side; it is something we may feel differently from our experience of the phenomenal world in general. We do not directly experience the Earth as will, but we come very close to it when we engage in voluntary actions, when we want and perform bodily actions. That’s why he chose the word “Will” to describe reality. But only human words