Schopenhauer’s Logically Self-Destructive Philosophy of Pessimism

Rereading Schopenhauer

When I learned that a family member of mine was likely struggling with the philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, I felt like it would be a good idea to revisit his work. I wanted to familiarize myself with his writing, just in case I was asked for my thoughts as a Christian who has spent some time thinking through philosophical systems and ideas. And upon rereading his work, I quickly remembered how effectively the man could make you sink to his level of despondency and depression. He does this, in part, by abusing his readers. What do I mean?

Well, he alternates between giving the reader hope and then snatching it away almost as quickly as he has given it. This results in the reader entertaining a hope that there is perhaps some light at the end of Schopenhauer’s morbidly bleak tunnel of ruminations, although there is none.

Thankfully, however, I also recognized just how logically self-destructive his philosophy is when scrutinized in light of itself. Below, I’ll give my reasons for thinking this to be the case.

1. Appearance vs. Reality

The first glaring problem is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics differentiates between the world-in-itself and the world-for-us, that is to say between what is actually the case and what we perceive to be the case. The world-in-itself is a unity; the world-for-us, however, is diverse. What this means is that the suffering and the pleasure upon which Schopenhauer waxes for pages and pages and pages is, well, an illusion. Because suffering is part of the world-for-us, and is not the world-in-itself, it is merely a representation of the underlying unity of all experiences and objects. The world-in-itself is merely a pulsating will, as it were, that cannot be said to be good, bad, painful, or pleasurable.

It just is.

This means that the entire focus of Schopenhauer’s pessimism has no foundation in his beliefs about what reality is, namely a single unconscious, a-rational, a-logical Will. And this further de-fangs his pessimism, seeing as the unity of the world-in-itself lacks teleology (i.e. a goal toward which it is tending), moral value, emotion, and reason. It needs to be remembered that we are part of this world-in-itself. Consequently, whatever we think is teleological, moral or immoral, emotive or apathetic, and rational or irrational is illusory. If Schopenhauer is right about the world as Will and Representation, then he is wrong. This is self-contradictory and, therefore, false. His metaphysics destroys his pessimism, rendering all of his claims about the futility and pain and pointless of human existence false.

2. Observation as Epistemological Authority

Schopenhauer, moreover, cites his observations as the authority that justifies his claims about suffering and pain and futility and death. However, given that Schopenhauer makes universal claims about the nature of reality, the nature of pain, the nature of pleasure, human nature, animality, time, psychology, and many other subjects, his citation of observation only serves to show that his observations do not justify his claims as true. While he may talk about individual experiences that he has observed, he has no ground for asserting that because of his observations he can make universal claims about the subjects I mentioned. Why? Because universal claims can only be evidentially justified, i.e. proven to be true by evidence, if the evidence for them is total, lacking no other pieces of evidence. For example, if Schopenhauer says that upon the basis of his observations he has concluded that all of human existence is ultimately suffering, he is either claiming to have observed human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions, or he is claiming to know something he could never observe, namely human existence at all times and in all places and under all conditions. Schopenhauer isn’t speaking the facts, as he claims, but his opinion based upon his limited observations. He is overextending the legitimate applicability of his observations to his system of philosophy.

3. Existence is Pure Goodness, According to Schopenhauer

For anyone whose read the old, disgruntled codger, it might be surprising to see that Schopenhauer identifies existence as pure goodness. This is because Schopenhauer harps on and on about human existence being a mistake, an accident, and ultimately purely comprised of suffering and evil. Yet his own metaphysics makes this impossible. If the nature of reality is one, an indivisible throbbing Will that has no emotions or morals or reasons – then it follows that it is just as true to say that all of human existence is Jell-O Pudding as it is to say that all of human existence is suffering.

But even if we ignore this glaring contradiction, for the sake of argument, and grant his irrational belief to him about reality being comprised of suffering and futility, what do we see? Well, in a word, we see that all of existence is tending toward death, which is the cessation of physical and conscious experience, including experiences of pain and suffering and futility. And this is precisely what goodness is, the absence of pain and suffering and futility, according to Schopenhauer. How, then, can he say that the universal movement toward death – and note that this is another universal claim he cannot justify by an appeal to his senses or observations – is a bad thing? If the end result of all of existence is death, then the end result of all of existence is a state of perfect goodness in which pain and suffering and futility have come to an absolute end.

Not only this, but part of our pain and suffering in this life comes from being consciously aware of our eventual and inevitable death, as Schopenhauer claims, and death is the end of pain and suffering and futility, then it follows that our conscious awareness of our eventual and inevitable death is not a cause of suffering and pain, but one of pleasure, seeing as by contemplating death and obsessing over it, as Schopenhauer does, we are actually contemplating and obsessing over an eternal state of goodness in which there is neither pain nor suffering nor futility. How is the contemplation of an never-ending goodness, a never-ending state of deathlessness and painlessness and futility-less-ness not pleasurable?

Even Schopenhauer recognizes that human being’s can derive a great deal of pleasure from hoping for a state of goodness that they have no experiential access to. Does it not, therefore, follow from Schopenhauer’s own philosophical assumptions that the contemplation of one’s own death is equivalent to the contemplation of the overarching goodness of the whole of reality, which is constantly striving toward eliminating pain and suffering and futility?

It does follow, and inexorably so.

Schopenhauer’s belief here reduce to absurdity. For if pessimism is true, then it is false.

Soli Deo Gloria
-h.

P.S. I may at some time in the future address Schopenhauer’s immensely ignorant comments about the Scriptures and the Christian faith.

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Was Tertullian an Irrationalist?

AyersRobert H. Ayers’  book Language, Logic, and Reason in the Church Fathers: A Study of Tertullian, Augustine, and Aquinas has helped me understand and appreciate how philosophy can be used, ministerially, in defense of the faith. I’ve learned much about  the men studied by Ayers’ work than I had previously knew. Among the info I gathered, I was surprised to learn that Tertullian was not an advocate of irrationalist apologetics. Rather, Tertullian’s famous quip – “I believe because it is absurd” – conformed to known and practiced logical and rhetorical norms of Tertullian’s day. His quip, in other words, was actually a logically sound response to critics of the Christian faith, albeit clothed in sharp rhetorical garb.

Ayers explains this in the following long, but informative and profitable, quotation.

…it has been claimed by some that Tertullian’s thought is anti-philosophical and anti-rational. This claim should not go unchallenged…instead of being irrational, Tertullian in fact demonstrates a rather amazing capacity for semantical and logical analyses in his defense of the Christian faith against heretics and persecutors. This is not surprising since the educational system in the Carthage of his day made available relatively sophisticated analytical and rhetorical tools of discourse. And it is obvious from his writings that Tertullian was highly educated in the several disciplines of the schools including those of rhetoric, logic, and philosophy.

[…]

It appears that the reason why Tertullian often is misrepresented as anti-philosophical and anti-rational finds its base in the two famous state-ments which are generally mentioned whenever there is a reference to Tertullian. Both of them often are treated in isolation from the context in which they appear and one of them is often misquoted as “I believe it because it is absurd.” These two statements as traditionally translated from the Latin are:  “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem” and  “And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible.”

It is a widespread practice to call the second quotation Tertullian’s paradox. In some cases it is labelled an “outrageous” or “grinding” paradox. For example, Henry Chadwick. claims that Tertullian insisted on “an absolute and radical discontinuity between Christianity and philosophy”, that Christianity’s supernatural character would be destroyed if it were reduced to “sweet reasonableness”, and that the “ultimate Christian confession is the grinding paradox ‘I believe it because it is absurd’.” Then in a parenthetical statement Chadwick says, “We must not, of course, take too literally Tertullian’s shrill rhetoric, but it is clear that his notorious utterance is a milestone along a path in Christian thought which leads through Sir Thomas Browne to Kierk.egaard and his modern disciples”.

Another striking example is to be found in the claims made about Tertullian’s thought by the philosopher Bernard Williams. Williams views the second quotation above as Tertullian’s acceptance of an instransigent and outrageous paradoxical conclusion and says of it, “I think that we should take Tertullian’s paradox seriously; not as just a rhetorical expression of his objections to a particular doctrine, but as a striking formulation of something which I shall suggest is essential to Christian belief.”

Admittedly the two examples presented here are somewhat extreme. Yet even those who because they are impressed with Tertullian’s brilliant use of rhetorical forms and with the rational force of most of his arguments view the statement as one which is not to be taken literally but as a striking way of making a point or as having a structural function as an exclamatory stop to an argument consciously developed along the lines of traditional rhetorical topics, nevertheless generally regard the statement as a paradox.

Certainly, prima facie it appears to be a paradox.

Is it possible, however, that it only seems so because all along it has been subjected to eisegesis rather than exegesis, and that Tertullian never intended and in fact did not here produce a paradox? If the answer to this question is in the affirmative, could it not be the case also, in light of this and other considerations, that Tertullian viewed reason and certain types and/or aspects of philosophy as the servants of faith rather than its antagonists, and that there is not, as is sometimes claimed, a basic inconsistency in his theological thought? An attempt will be made here to answer these questions in the affirmative.

[…]

Recent studies have demonstrated convincingly that Tertullian structured his treatises in terms of the conventional patterns which constituted the basic rhetorical forms of oratory, and that he used these forms in a creative way through skillfully adapting form to content. On this basis it is concluded that his knowledge of rhetoric was so deeply ingrained that the rhetorical forms furnished not merely a matter of stylistic adornment but rather “provided categories and distinctions which affected the structure of his thought.”

[…]

…James Moffat, has suggested that a different estimate of Tertullian might be gained through a comparison of Tertullian’s famous statement with a passage in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The context of this passage is a discussion of the topics useful in forensic debate.

Aristotle recommends that attention be given to such items as definitions of terms, the logical divisions of a subject, the proper syllogism for sound argument, inductive proofs including considerations of time and place, previous decisions on analogous situations, motives people have for doing or avoiding the action in question, etc.

In this context Aristotle refers to a further type of argument in the following words:

Another line of argument refers to things which are supposed to happen and yet seem incredible; We may argue that people could not have believed them, if they had not been true or nearly true: even that they are the more likely to be true because they are incredible. For the things which men believe are either facts or probabilities: if, therefore, a thing that is believed is improbable or even incredible, it must be true,-since it is certainly not believed because it is at all probable or credible.

As Moffat points out the assumption in this argument is that all objects of human belief are either facts or probabilities. If a statement cannot be classified under the category of probabilities, then it must represent an actual fact. To quote from Moffat, “We are· invited to believe that if some statement is wildly improbable, it is more improbable still that anyone should have invented it; in other words, that it would never have been made unless there had been some evidence for it, and consequently that such evidence must be strong.”

Surely, the similarity between this argument form or “topic” recommended by Aristotle and Tertullian’s, “It is straightforwardly credible because it is improper; it is certain because impossible”, is striking.

…in the judgment of this writer there is strong circumstantial evidence in support of the claim that, however briefly stated, Tertullian consciously is using an Aristotelian argument form.

[…]

Defending the Sacrament against the claim that it is incredible for mere dipping in water to result in the attainment of eternity, Tertullian says, “But it is the more to be believed if the wonderfulness be the reason why it is not believed”.

In light of this evidence, it seems reasonable to conclude that in his famous passage Tertullian was using a familiar Aristotelian argument form instead of uttering an “outrageous” or “grinding” paradox. Therefore, the following paraphrase which does not seem to do violence either to language or overall context might well communicate what Tertullian meant by his famous passage:

The Son of God died. It is straightforwardly credible because it is improper, senseless, or improbable. That is, it is not the sort of statement that anyone would invent. He was buried and rose again. It is certain because it is impossible. That is, it is impossible in terms of those things which men imagine as possible.

-h.